[image-1]The new office space where federal healthcare navigators are working in downtown Charleston might be the prettiest place in America to sign up for the Affordable Care Act — if you can find it. It’s in suite 105 on the Fountain Walk near the S.C. Aquarium in a city-owned space typically used for human resources training.

“You’d think people might come just for the view,” joked Catherine Johnstone, a volunteer working with the S.C. Progressive Network’s Get  Covered Surge Center that’s helping sign up uninsured Lowcountry residents for healthcare coverage. As she spoke, dolphins were rising out of the Cooper River near the Arthur Ravenel Bridge and a pelican glided over the calm water.

There are only a handful of navigators in the Lowcountry working on a federal grant to help uncovered Americans through the process of buying health insurance. One of them is Loreen Meyerson, who this morning had to surrender her cell phone to a different navigator who traveled from Columbia so he could take incoming calls while she did in-person help. Inside the workspace, for at least the first two hours it was open, volunteers outnumbered those needing health insurance, and a Christmas tree brought in by a local lawmaker was bare. As each new individual or family signs up through the federal health care exchange, navigators will hang an ornament — a paper compass with wings — on the boughs.

“In three weeks this tree will be full,” said Mt. Pleasant attorney William Hamilton, who’s been something of a local spokesperson for the S.C. Progressive Network, one of the three groups in the state that received a navigator grant.

It’s been three months since the federal government rolled out its botched portal, Healthcare.gov, through which uninsured Americans were supposed to be able to browse healthcare options through the federal exchanges set up under the new law. But while media has focused much attention on the website’s problems, Hamilton says there have been some bright spots here in Charleston where navigators have been signing up families by the dozens using paper forms.

“Somebody’s got to do it in South Carolina, and if the state government won’t do it than the people will,” he says.

Siting at table in the office as she waited for an appointment, Mare Baracco, a navigator working for the Beaufort Black Chamber of Commerce, said she recently helped a self-employed couple in their 50s pay 10 percent of what they’d been shelling out for healthcare before the new law.

“Their gross income after taxes is about $24,000,” she said. “They were paying — for literally a catastrophic policy because they’re self employed — about $800 a month. With their tax credit they are paying $84.80 a month. Unbelievable. And they’re getting an actual policy, not a catastrophic policy that only covers them if someone gets an arm sliced off or something.”

Today was the first day the space near the aquarium opened, and navigators will be working there for the next three weeks signing up anybody who is eligible. They’ll also be able to tell those with questions if they qualify for federal subsidies that help lower the cost of their monthly premiums. The navigators just need to get the word out that they’re there to help, they say, and the people will come. But their efforts were complicated today when they were told they couldn’t put up signs around the area directing passersby to the suite.

Outside the office, navigator Tim Liszewski took a phone call from someone asking about healthcare options for an unemployed family member who makes about $11,000 per year but isn’t eligible for Medicaid. Unfortunately, Liszewski told the caller, the family member wouldn’t be eligible for federal subsidies either because their income is too low. If the state had expanded Medicaid, being eligible might be an option, but not here. “The governor and the Legislature chose not to do that,” he said. That person is in a pool of people in South Carolina that are caught in a gap between what the federal government is trying to do to help poor people get covered and what state government has done that makes getting covered harder, Liszewski says.

For the past few years, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and the GOP-dominated state Legislature have thwarted efforts to implement the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina. There’s a bill set for special order in the state Senate to nullify the federal law within South Carolina’s borders. And the Palmetto State is one of several that’s political leadership has chosen to opt out of expanding Medicaid under the law. In the Palmetto State, if you’re an adult deemed able to work, then it’s hard to be eligible for Medicaid no matter how little your income, Liszewski says.

Dressed in a track suit in the lobby of the Get Covered Surge Center, Charleston Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who brought the Christmas tree, says he strongly supports the ACA.

“Here in the state of South Carolina, 700,000 people are uninsured. We just can’t ignore them,” he says. “This Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010 and it’s the law. So all the naysayers, we need to put all this aside and start cooperating with one another.”

Anyone needing help getting covered should come to the office at 360 Concord Street on the Fountain Walk near the aquarium within the next three weeks, says Meyerson. Meanwhile, Dec. 8, the City of Charleston and North Charleston have partnered to hold an information fair about the Affordable Care Act at the North Charleston Convention Center, where about 50 licensed insurance brokers, navigators, and volunteers will be able to answer questions and help the uninsured get coverage. 

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