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Texans bypass website glitches to get health care

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RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI | October 3, 2013 10:07 AM EST | AP


HOUSTON — HOUSTON (AP) — Luis Veloz wasn't going to wait for the federal government to work out the kinks in its website before enrolling in the nation's new health insurance system. Instead, he rushed to fill out a paper application and mailed it in, eager to have a plan that would prevent him from racking up major medical bills like his parents.

As Texas residents encountered difficulties with the website for a second day, those trained to assist with the process said callers are simply asking for a nearby location where they can complete the process the old-fashioned way: in person and on paper.

Veloz, a 19-year-old community college student, was forced to withdraw from Southern Methodist University in Dallas after his parents incurred $250,000 in debt when his father had a heart attack last year.

"It's an exciting moment because my family has never had preventive care," he said. "You are always uncertain about your state of health. Are you healthy?" he said, describing fears he's had about ending up in an emergency room with an advanced form of cancer.

Texas is one of 36 mostly Republican states that haven't built their own exchanges, an online marketplace where people can comparison-shop for health insurance. The state has the highest uninsured rate in the country, with about one-quarter of the population lacking coverage. Gov. Rick Perry has also refused to expand Medicaid despite federal funds to help cover the costs, a move that some say will leave hundreds of thousands of low-income residents uninsured.

But Perry's open disdain for the law apparently did not stop thousands of Texans from trying to enroll when the exchange opened Tuesday.

"We had no idea that there would be this much interest this early," said Ron Cookston, executive director of Gateway to Care, one of several Houston organizations that have hired and trained people to assist with enrollment. "We thought we would have to spend a lot of time outreaching, finding people to get them to be interested."

Instead, the phones at Gateway, which has 15 navigators, have been ringing constantly. By early Wednesday, Laverne Moore said most people were not complaining about the website delays, but instead inquiring about where they could go to sign up in person.

"What do I need to take with me?" Moore said people are asking.

It was unclear how many Texas residents had successfully enrolled.

In the voicemail of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services employee, the woman noted she wasn't working because of the partial federal government shutdown. The move, which sent 800,000 government workers home, began Tuesday as House Republicans tried to halt funding for the contentious health insurance program that became a law in 2009.

For some, the government's failure to prepare for the volume of traffic is frustrating.

Steve Wolf, a 50-year-old father of two who owns a ranch in Austin used by filmmakers, said he keeps getting error messages. On Wednesday, the website read "we have a lot of visitors on the site right now," and asked users to remain on the page to keep their place in line.

Cecilia Fontenot of Houston, a 63-year-old part-time accountant who lost her health insurance when she was laid off in 2008, said she wasn't put off by the slow pace or by being unable to enroll Tuesday.

Unable to afford her $300 a month diabetes medication with her $2,000-a-month income any longer, Fontenot simply plans on trying again in a few days — either in person or on the website.

"Something good, you always have to have a little patience," Fontenot said.

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP