AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The phones were ringing at three-times the normal pace at the United Way call center in Austin on Tuesday, the majority of calls from people looking for help finding health insurance on the first day it became available under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The center helps residents enroll in social services and normally gets about 150 calls a day, but more than 180 had called in by 11 a.m., said Jessica Venson, the center's director. She said interest in the program was strong, but she noted that people have six months to register through a federally run website.
"We didn't know what to expect, but so far it has been manageable," Venson said.
The United Way is among several nonprofits, hospitals and clinics advertising the program in Texas — where 25 percent of residents are uninsured, the highest percentage of any U.S. state — and encouraging people to sign up. But they're getting no help from the state or its political leadership, who are unanimously and loudly opposed to the law.
The center in Austin was referring callers, depending on their location and needs, to health care navigators who are spread out across the state. At Parkland Hospital in Dallas, three-dozen navigators were helping people register but were stymied by a federal website slowed by the volume of new consumers. Parkland turned to paper applications to speed the process.
Texas is one of 36 states that relied on the federal government to set up online market places, known as health care exchanges, for consumers to compare and buy health insurance. State lawmakers also chose not to expand Medicaid as part of the new federal health care law, so almost 1.5 million Texas residents living in poverty will not qualify for free or subsidized coverage.
Stephanie Pollock, who was hired in August as a counselor to work with Houston residents buying coverage, said she spoke to one couple whose $2,100 monthly income made them ineligible to receive Medicaid. She said the wife was a diabetic and the husband had a heart condition, and each took turns alternating 15-day supplies of their medication.
Pollock said the woman told her that she was saving their lives by steering them toward affordable health care.
"I call it the Berlin Wall coming down in America," Pollock said.
Pollock noted that phones were ringing off the hook early as Monday. She said most callers were between the ages of 45 and 63, and had either been unable to find a job since the recession or had a medical condition that rendered them unable to work.
More than 6 million Texas residents don't have health insurance, and the rate among working-age adults is one-in-three. Conservative Republicans, though, reject the notion that government should play a role in health care.
Gov. Rick Perry is among the law's most vocal opponents. Because of his opposition and uncertainty about new rules he wants to impose on navigators, four government councils chose not to assist people even after initially agreeing to help people sign up.
On Monday, John Buckner, executive director of the Costal Bend Council of Governments, said his organization is reliant on state dollars. Given the strong disapproval for the law among state leaders, Buckner said his group — which serves 12 coastal Texas counties — decided it was unwise to participate.
"There's a lot of strong feelings about this program in Austin — the legislative level, in the governor's office," Buckner said. "It seems like with all the issues going on right now, it might be best not to get involved with something that's not being very accepted by the political arena."
Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Austin and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.