With deadline extended, health exchange assistors race to sign up more Texans for insurance

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Nearly 1.2 million Texas residents purchased health insurance under the U.S. Affordable Care Act in time for the 2015 enrollment deadline, marking the second highest enrollment among states relying on a federal online marketplace, according to data released Wednesday.

Sunday was the nationwide deadline for the second enrollment period, which began last November, under President Barack Obama's health care law. The law requires that all Americans have insurance or face a tax penalty, with plans offered through either a federal or state-run websites, also known as marketplaces.

More than 80 percent of Texas consumers who signed up qualify for a federal subsidy that on average covers about $240 of their monthly premiums, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The numbers could increase because the deadline has been extended to Sunday for people who faced computer glitches and long waits while trying to enroll over the phone last week. The agency said it wasn't immediately clear how many people were on that list.

"We've been making lots and lots of phone calls to people who tried to enroll but weren't able to," said Elizabeth Colvin, director of Austin-based Insure Central Texas, a nonprofit that focused during the second enrollment period on enrolling Latinos and refugees.

Colvin said her organization will remain open after Sunday to help people use their new insurance.

Nationwide, about 11.4 million Americans selected plans or were automatically re-enrolled by the deadline. That includes about 2.8 million people who enrolled through state-based exchanges.

Texas is among more than three dozen states that chose not to establish their own, state-specific websites to offer insurance plans. Of those states, Texas had the second-most residents enroll for health insurance after Florida, said Kevin Counihan, the exchange's chief executive officer.

Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured residents when compared to the nation's most populous states.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on national health issues, said more than 3 million Texas residents are eligible for enrollment in the federal exchange. That means the state's health agency and health care advocates will continue to reach out to nearly 2 million people as the five-year implementation of the law continues.

About a million Texans — mainly minimum-wage earners — fall into a coverage gap, meaning they are ineligible for both federal tax credits and Medicaid.

Texas was among nearly two dozen conservative states that chose not to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law. That means individuals must earn less than 19 percent of the federal poverty level — or about $320 per month — to qualify for the federally subsidized health care program. The state has a separate program for children from low-income families called the Texas Children's Health Plan.

In an effort to increase awareness of coverage options for the state's poorest residents and the disabled, a coalition of advocacy groups called Cover Texas Now is working with school districts to inform parents that Medicaid and the Texas Children's Health Plan are open for enrollment year-round.

The number of children on Medicaid in Texas is growing, partly because of increased awareness of the importance of health insurance, said Laura Guerra-Cardus, an associate director of the Children's Defense Fund. That increased awareness is often called the "welcome-mat effect."

"We could have a much bigger welcome-mat effect if their parents also had a coverage option," she said.

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