Newark area residents seeking help filing their 2013 tax returns may find they get an unexpected benefit — help enrolling in one of the health-insurance programs provided by the Affordable Care Act.
Newark-based nonprofit New Jersey Citizen Action is offering ACA assistance to people who visit its new Economic Security Center, located in a storefront at 165 Halsey Street in Newark.
Citizen Action’s tax-preparation service has helped 18,000 people get $25 million in tax refunds over the past seven years.
This year, for the first time, people who arrive to do their taxes are being encouraged to learn about their eligibility either for federal tax credits available to offset the cost of health insurance or New Jersey FamilyCare, which is another name for New Jersey’s Medicaid program.
Medicaid eligibility has been expanded under the ACA.
Newark has 70,498 uninsured residents, amounting to 26.4 percent of the city’s population, according to recent census estimates.
Shortly after its grand opening ceremony yesterday, the center saw a steady stream of visitors. Santa Taveras, a 55-year-old Newark home health aide, came to complete her tax return and to apply for health insurance.
Taveras said she last had health insurance in 2002, when she lost her eligibility for FamilyCare because the last of her three children had become an adult.
She said she is able to work only a limited number of hours because she must provide care for one of her adult children who is disabled.
“It’s difficult, because I need insurance now more than before,” to receive treatment for high blood pressure, said Taveras, a Spanish speaker who moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1982, was interviewed with the help of a translator.
Until the past year, she had received treatment at Saint Michael’s Medical Center, which received partial reimbursement through charity care. But when the hospital began to bill her for its services, she stopped seeking treatment.
“I will feel more stable and secure, because I’ll be able to get preventive care and really address those issues I haven’t been able to before,” she said.
Shortly before applying for insurance, she expressed hope that she would now be able to receive coverage at a reasonable cost.
Citizen Action Executive Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye said the organization is aiming to enroll 4,000 people in insurance plans through the center and at a satellite location at Investors Bank in the Ironbound section of the city.
The organization has hired two full-time insurance application counselors with funding from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
“We’ve never missed a target – we’re really good at meeting goals, and exceeding them,” said Salowe-Kaye, who noted that the group’s initiative is working on a compressed schedule due to several delays.
She said the tax center the group has operated in Newark since 2007 normally is open during tax season, closing on May 1.
This year, the organization has signed a yearlong lease, with a goal of continuing to enroll residents in New Jersey FamilyCare after the end of open enrollment for insurance through the marketplace on March 31. Open enrollment will resume on November 15.
The center has been open for a few weeks, although its formal opening ceremony was yesterday.
Johana Anton, a Kearney bank teller, successfully applied for health insurance through the marketplace with the help of Citizen Action in late January. She has a 5-year-old daughter and is expecting a second child soon.
“It’s better to have a person telling you, really, this is what is better for you,” said Anton, who said she was confused by information at the federal marketplace website, healthcare.gov. “It’s a good program helping people out, not just with doing your tax return – that’s already saving money – but also to have health insurance, which is necessary.”
Henry Moore, a 53-year-old unemployed warehouse worker who lives in East Orange, said he couldn’t remember the last time he had health insurance before enrolling recently in FamilyCare. He has struggled with chronic health problems, including glaucoma in one eye and blindness in the other, as well as a bullet in his spine from being at “the wrong place on the wrong day.”
He has had a difficult time e’s paying for needed healthcare because of his insurance situation.
“I have none, you know?” Moore said. “I need it. I was doing the charity care thing.”
Citizen Action is receiving support from a variety of area organizations, including Service Employees International Union Local 1199. Executive Vice President Milly Silva said the enrollment effort would be helped if state officials agreed to spend a $7.67 million federal grant for outreach efforts – the he state has been in talks with federal officials about the grant money, which must be spent by February 22 or else revert to federal control.
Silva, who recently was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said every dollar counts in the outreach effort.
“It’s absolutely a concern that, at a moment when you have so many people in New Jersey who are eligible to get coverage through healthcare.gov if they knew how to access the marketplace, the state is not doing everything possible to make sure there’s effective outreach across the entire state,” Silva said.
Another union, Communication Workers of America Local 1039, has been working to help Newark taxi drivers enroll in health insurance at the center, as part of its effort to unionize the drivers. Local President Lionel Leach Jr. said the union is helping uninsured taxi drivers to apply for insurance through FamilyCare and through the ACA marketplace.
Disclosure: The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey provides funding for NJ Spotlight’s healthcare coverage.