SEATTLE — Carissa Brooks went to the Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue on Saturday to buy some thread. She went home with some health insurance. It was an emotional moment for the 36-year-old mother of two, who a year ago was diagnosed with mixed connective tissue disorder that she said sometimes causes her joint paint, hives and even has led to her hair falling out. She is uninsured and has struggled to pay for treatment.
While her income is modest, Brooks-who works as an administrative assistant with a Bellevue nonprofit that provides before- and after-school care for kids-said it's just above the Medicaid threshold. But quitting her job to qualify would leave her unable to pay her other bills.
"I have to work," Brooks said. "I have to provide for my kids."
On Saturday, as she was shopping at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores at the mall, she stumbled upon a health-insurance outreach program by Public Health-Seattle & King County. The department hosted the event to help people obtain coverage through the state's new exchange, created for the Affordable Care Act.
"It's exciting," Brooks said, after hugging her "in-person assister," the staffer certified to help with enrollment. "I was going to cry."
Brooks was able to qualify for Medicaid coverage under the new Affordable Care Act provisions, and she will not have to pay any premium for her coverage.
The outreach program is the third of four big events hosted by the department. While most people will sign up through the Washington Healthplanfinder website, many need help because they don't have online access or are confused about the options.
More than 170 people showed up Saturday, though not all were eligible for coverage. The department had 18 assisters to guide people through the process of enrolling for coverage. Because Crossroads is in a polyglot community, there were translators who could help in 11 languages, including Punjabi, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian.
The public-health department publicized the event on its website and through community newsletters and churches, among other ways. About 50 people were waiting to get help with enrollment before the event began at 10 a.m.
"I had to set up a number system to keep them from being anxious," said Patty Hayes, director of the community health-services division at the department.
Outreach programs such as the one at Crossroads have helped make Washington state one of the fastest at enrolling residents into health-insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. The department said more than 60,000 people have signed up for insurance through Washington Healthplanfinder since its debut at the beginning of the month.
One of those residents getting coverage Saturday was Elias Berner, a 64-year-old medical and court interpreter, who now pays for his individual insurance coverage, spending $493 a month in premiums. Berner, who had challenges enrolling online and through the phone number set up to help, figured he'd try his luck at the mall after finding out about the event online.
After an hour or so of waiting and working with an assister, Berner had his new coverage lined up. Berner said he'll pay just $97 a month, starting in January, until he turns 65 in the middle of the year and becomes eligible for Medicare.
"The premiums were getting higher and higher and higher each year," Berner said. "We'll see how it works."
The event wasn't without its glitches, much like the rollout of the exchanges themselves, which struggled with online outages in the early days.
At the mall, Alicia Bauer was hoping she'd be able to obtain health insurance. She said she lost her coverage when she was dropped from her husband's plan after their divorce.
With two small kids in tow, the 28-year-old worked with an assister to enroll. But the computer systems couldn't complete her application, for reasons that weren't entirely clear, and she was told to try again on the website later in the week.
"I haven't had insurance for a couple of months, so I'm getting a little worried," Bauer said.