Micronesians Face Long Waits as Health Care Deadline Nears

Dec 14, 2015

People waiting to meet with a language interpreter, or Kokua, at St Elizabeth's Episcopal Church in Kalihi. The lines to enroll continue to grow as the deadline to sign up for health coverage nears.
Credit Molly Solomon

The clock is ticking for Hawai‘i residents who want to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. The deadline is tomorrow and the state is scrambling to sign people up in time. That’s a special challenge for more than 7,500 Hawai‘i residents from countries of the Compact of Free Association, including the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports the transition hasn’t always been easy.

The first thing you notice when you pull into the parking lot at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church is the line of people out the door. Outreach workers say it’s become normal to see men and women waiting as early as 7am. One of them is Penno Paul, he’s been waiting to see a language interpreter for more than two hours. "I came here at 9 o'clock until 11:35 a.m.," said Paul, who left before receiving help in order to get to work on time. "It's really hard."

The long delays haven’t kept away Nason Sharry, who works part time as a security guard at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. His main concern is maintaining his regular HMSA coverage. "For myself, I had a major issue with my health," said Sharry. "I go to the hospital every month." Sharry recently had heart valve repair surgery. For him regular health coverage isn’t just a comfort, it’s a necessity. Sharry said, without it, "I might end up having a stroke or heart attack."

Inside the classrooms, outreach staff, called Kokuas, walk people through the application process. "One Kokua can assist one person for more than 2 hours," explained Kathy Martin, a case manager with the nonprofit We Are Oceania. "These people, they come and sit forever. It's like they sit the whole day just to get enrolled," said Martin who says the organization has only successfully signed up 100 people since open enrollment began. "Its not an easy process, not an easy enrollment. There will be people that get left behind."

Earlier this year, Micronesians went through a similar process, signing up with the Hawai‘i Health Connector, the state’s private health insurance exchange. The Connector shut down earlier this month, meaning residents had to re-enroll using the federal site healthcare.gov. That enrollment process began November 1st. "There is a lot more hope and optimism than there was at the beginning of open enrollment," said Rachael Wong, the Director of the State of Hawaii Department of Human Services.

After the Connector folded, DHS assumed responsibility for outreach. "Yes, there are issues we're facing and we're working on it collectively as a community," said Wong when asked about the long waits for enrollment at the community centers. "I think that's perhaps the difference from the past. It's not a population that's having something done to them. Were doing this together."

Recent numbers from DHS show enrollment has picked up as the deadline to sign up gets closer. So far 7,600 have now enrolled, with about 10-percent representing Hawai‘i residents from the compact nations.
And while Tuesday is the last day to enroll for continuous coverage starting January 1st, open enrollment for the year continues through January 31st.

If you are currently enrolled for medical coverage through the Hawaii Health Connector, you will need to re-enroll for the 2016 plan year. To avoid a break in coverage you must enroll by Dec. 15, 2015.

You can enroll through HealthCare.gov online or by phone 1-800-318-2596 (open 24 hours a day, seven days a week). If you need in-person assistance, you can schedule an appointment with a Kokua through the Hawaii Health Connector. Interested individuals should bring documentation such as a valid passport, I-94, social security number, and proof of income (i.e., pay stubs) if applicable for all household members seeking insurance.

Outreach events to assist in enrollment:

Monday, December 14

  • 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Hale Na‘au Pono, S&L Building, 85-888 Farrington Hwy. #105, Waianae, 96792
  • 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, 720 N. King St., Honolulu, 96817

Tuesday, December 15

  • 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Hale Na‘au Pono, S&L Building, 85-888 Farrington Hwy. #105, Waianae, 96792
  • 12 p.m. - 10 p.m., St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, 720 N. King St., Honolulu, 96817