Governor David Ige announced an extension to allow more time to sign up for health care under the Affordable Care Act. The special enrollment period will apply to Hawai‘i residents from countries of the Compact of Free Association, including Micronesia. The state now has until February 15 to enroll the 6000 COFA citizens who still need insurance. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.
Signing up for health care is no easy task. But for many citizens from COFA nations, the transition has been especially difficult. “Hawai‘i has a unique situation,” said Rachael Wong, the director of the state Department of Human Services, the agency responsible for health care outreach. “We have our neighbors who have come from the COFA nations, and many people have come over just recently,” explained Wong. “And that means their English is not as good.”
Access to language has been one of the biggest barriers, according to Wong. COFA migrants, who are from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, speak a diverse set of languages. Enrollment usually requires an interpreter and additional documentation. The whole application process can sometimes take up to three hours per person. The additional time granted by the federal government allows Wong and her staff to continue community outreach. “We’re really working closely with people from the community and that hasn’t happened before,” said Wong. “It’s really sitting down with leaders from the compact nations and asking, what’s the best way to get the message out? How can we communicate things and be most efficient so people can actually watch or listen ahead of time and know what to expect.”
Wong says one idea would involve recording videos in different COFA languages, explaining everything from what the extension means to how they can enroll. The idea was among several suggested by community leaders like Josie Howard. Originally from Chuuk, she’s now the program director for the nonprofit We Are Oceania. “It’s important to know where to go. It’s important to know whom to call,” said Howard. “And it’s important to know that to enroll, you go here, here, and there.”
Howard says the extra time is necessary to reach more people and avoid coverage gaps next year. “It allows us to reach more people,” she said. “It allows us to help more people we were not able to help due to the deadline.”
According to DHS, the state has signed up 1,200 Hawai‘i residents from COFA nations. They estimate as many as 6,000 still need to re-enroll through the federal website healthcare.gov.