Distrust of government, insurance costs, glitches complicate health care sign-ups in rural areas

By Melissa Nelson-gabriel

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 4 2014 9:51 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, Joe Manning sits in his office in De Funiak Springs, Fla. Manning is an outreach worker trained to sign people in rural Florida to participate in the Affordable Care Act.

Melissa Nelson, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

FREEPORT, Fla. — In this rural part of the Panhandle, Christopher Mitchell finds few takers when he delivers his message about the importance of exploring insurance options under the federal health overhaul.

People in the conservative-leaning area tend to have a bad impression of President Obama's signature law because of negative messages they hear on talk radio or from friends, said Mitchell, marketing director for a network of nonprofit health clinics. Even for those with insurance, a doctor's visit may require a long drive because there are few providers in the area — and some are selective about the coverage they accept.

Around the country, advocates spreading the word about the Affordable Care Act in rural areas face similar difficulties. Coupled with the well-publicized glitches for the online insurance marketplaces, their stories illustrate the broader challenges in meeting President Barack Obama's goal of reducing the number of uninsured in places with some of the highest percentages of uninsured residents.

"I tell people that I am not here to advocate for the law, I am here to support the law and empower people to be able to use and understand the law," said Mitchell, whose employer, PanCare of Florida, received a federal grant for outreach efforts. "But when people are hearing over and over and over that is bankrupting America, it is hard to break through."

On a recent afternoon, Mitchell made his pitch to half a dozen patients in the waiting room of a low-slung brick clinic surrounded by pine trees on the two-lane state road that serves as Freeport's main street. In areas like this — where one-story houses and mobile homes sit far apart on lots of tan, sandy soil and pine needles — many poor residents could benefit from federally subsidized health insurance but aren't open to it.

Among those unconvinced by Mitchell's pitch was Laressa Bowness, who brought her father to the clinic for dental care.

"I get frustrated because I hear so much stuff. The politicians who put the system into place have lost their sense of reality. They don't understand what people who work face," said Bowness, who added that most people she knows don't have health insurance because they simply cannot afford it.

In a sparsely populated area of Michigan, retired nurse Sue Cook crisscrosses the 960-square mile Sanilac County to help people sign up for insurance through the online exchange. The spread-out county has only 42,000 residents.

"There are many challenges we're facing right now," said Cook, who leads an all-volunteer team of health care professionals at Caring Hearts Clinic in Marlette, 65 miles north of Detroit. "You've got somebody in the northeast part of the county that has no transportation to get here to even sign up.

"We're finding that even if I go to the far end of the county, there's the issue of not having Wi-Fi to hook up to," she said. "Those are huge hurdles for us to try to conquer in a large county like this."

Kathy Bannister recently signed up with Cook's help after many failed attempts. The self-employed beautician secured a plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan with a monthly payment of $215 after subsidies. She now pays $500 for a comparable plan from the same insurer.

"The whole idea was to make it easier for people," said Bannister, 51, who had a heart-valve replacement 13 years ago. "I'd been calling and calling and calling, and a lot of people would have given up. It's discouraging."

To the north, Nick Derusha is director of the health department for four Upper Peninsula counties with a high rate of uninsured residents: Mackinac, Luce, Alger and Schoolcraft. The region covers a vast expanse but only consists of about 35,000 people.

Barriers faced by people in the area include a shortage of health workers, a lack of transportation and Internet and cable connectivity.

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