Time is running short for Massachusetts residents to enroll in health insurance plans for next year.
Two key health care enrollment dates are coming up soon. December 15th marks the deadline for federal healthcare – but in Massachusetts, people have until January 23rd.
“Having access to care really starts with health insurance," said Lia Spiliotes. She's the CEO for Community Health Programs in Berkshire County, and says CHP deals with a broad spectrum of groups in the Berkshires.
“Everything from the uninsured to those in the Medicaid population to individuals who are commercially insured – they have Blue Cross Blue Shield, United, Etna – any one of the various health insurers," Spiliotes told WAMC. "We treat those. And then the about balance of the third that we have are the Medicare population, the senior population, which as we know, there’s a growing, there’s a large senior population in the Berkshires.”
She says the largest barrier to care is simply a lack of awareness.
“I think a lot of individuals will have in their own mind this idea that ‘I can’t get it because… It’s not available to people like me….’ And I think the most important thing that we do is the outreach and education of individuals that they understand that it’s a right of theirs and they can have it,” said Spiliotes.
CHP has offices up and down Berkshire County. Counselors like William Cruz are on the front line of its campaign to help people get covered.
“I help people to apply for health insurance," Cruz told WAMC. "It can be very complicated because it’s a 32-page-long application. So the best way to do it is to go through the MassHealthConnector.org, that’s the website I use.”
Cruz spoke in his office in downtown Pittsfield. He says he helps between eight and 10 families a day apply for health insurance.
“I have some people who actually earn $50,000 a year for a family of three, and they actually were able to get insurance through us," he said. "Their employer – they do work – their employer was offering it, but it was $800 a month.”
He said in that case, he managed to find them insurance through Health Connector for around $250. Cruz says it’s more complicated for people with less consistent work.
“People who work part-time really struggle to find health insurance – or they don’t even know that these programs do exist,” said Cruz.
Then there’s people who don’t have any work at all – or are dealing with problems with housing, terminal illnesses, or untreated mental or emotional issues. That’s why Cruz is out and about in the community.
“Homeless shelters, people don’t know that we do assist here, that normally come from other cities and towns," he said. "And we provide the services there. Soldier On, for our soldiers. I normally go there once a week to check on our soldiers.”
Cruz is also a key conduit to care for the county’s Spanish speaking population.
“There is barriers when they come and they don’t have a Spanish speaking person," he told WAMC. "When they see me, that I speak the same language, they obviously feel comfortable and they are open. Especially the immigrants, because they think that for some reason we sending them away – but we are not. They deserve their care, they deserve their health to be in good shape as well.”
Ellen Lahr says healthcare in the U.S. divides the haves and the have nots.
“For people who have full-time jobs, and they’re very fortunate to have insurance through their workplace – those folks really don’t know what’s going on for the rest of the world when it comes to getting health insurance," she told WAMC. "And I hope that they can all keep their jobs, because if they can’t, they’ll have to also come see William, and he’ll help them, and he’ll help them get insured.”
Lahr, of Housatonic-based Strategic Communications, does PR for CHP.
“The other group of people that needs to get insurance – and maybe, around here, are very likely to qualify – are young adults who turn 26 and age off of their parents’ health plan," said Lahr. "This is an important group of people.”
Cruz says that he sees the benefits of the work CHP does every day around the county in the clients he serves.
“Once they are able to get the health insurance plan, they feel more comfortable," Cruz told WAMC. "They feel more secure.”