With an annual income of about $20,000 a year, single mom Lisa Tenney couldn't afford even catastrophic health insurance.
Ian Steger had health insurance that cost $170 a month for the premium but said he couldn't get that same coverage when he traveled out of the country for three months to a year at a time. He hasn't had health insurance since mid-2012.
Both were among the first Whatcom County residents expecting to obtain coverage as a key piece of the federal health law kicked in Tuesday, Oct. 1 - allowing most uninsured people to apply for Medicaid or buy private health insurance for 2014.
Both are provisions of the federal measure frequently called Obamacare, and Washington was one of the states that decided to expand Medicaid.
That means thousands of Whatcom County residents up to age 65 who didn't have insurance through an employer or couldn't previously access coverage now can. One in six adults in the county doesn't have health insurance, according to the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement.
Most U.S. residents must have health insurance in 2014 or face a fine.
Uninsured people have until March 31 to sign up for coverage through Washington Healthplanfinder, where they'll also find out if they can get government help paying for coverage.
Tenney, 37, has two young daughters. The Bellingham resident is self-employed as a massage therapist and doula, and is starting her own business as a raw chocolatier.
Her oldest has health insurance through the child's father. Qualifying for free health coverage through Medicaid for herself and her other daughter was a relief, she said Tuesday after filling out paperwork in the office of the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement.
The alliance was one of 10 lead organizations chosen statewide to help consumers enroll in a health plan. WAHA is serving residents in Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan, Island and Snohomish counties.
The Bellingham-based organization is building and overseeing a network to provide impartial information to consumers in person, online and on the phone - including training more than 200 people in the region to help consumers like Tenney.
"For me, the most important thing is my girls are covered. This will let me sleep at night," she said. "It takes a huge amount of stress off my shoulders."
Tenney said she had health insurance through her partner's employer. When their relationship ended, so did her health-care coverage. She hasn't had insurance for about two years.
"It keeps me up at night," Tenney said. "My own health, I have major health issues that aren't being addressed. Being a single mom, it can be really scary."
Tenney said she hoped the new law will help support women and their babies in other ways, referring to a breast-feeding support group at her office for postpartum moms.
"I cannot tell you how many mothers have sat in that circle with me tearfully explaining how they have to leave their brand new babies, when they are still very much postpartum, to go back to work so they can keep their insurance, or so they can maintain the household income to be able to afford that insurance," she said.
Tenney and Steger filled out a paper application Tuesday morning because the state's online marketplace for health care coverage - wahealthplanfinder - was down.
The website for the new health exchange went offline for nearly six hours after officials shut it down to assess why it was operating so slowly.
Michael Marchand, a spokesman for the new health insurance marketplace, said at mid-day Tuesday that the problem was not related to the volume of visitors or to the federal government shutdown.
The website opened again for business at about 2 p.m. although its speed was still sluggish.
Steger, 31, was told Tuesday that he qualified for Medicaid, although he had gone in to look at private health insurance. He said he has made about $9,000 since April.
The Kendall resident works primarily as a waiter, bartender or bar manager to earn money to travel and said he also previously had to weigh buying travel insurance that totaled as much as $400 every couple of months for health care.
Steger said he also was pleased to be getting dental and vision coverage.
His income has averaged about $18,000 a year in recent years. Should his income rise to that amount again, he was told that his premium would total about $60 a month.
"It's peace of mind," said Steger, who mountain bikes at Galbraith and snowboards at Baker. "I know I'm covered in every aspect."
SIGNING UP IN WASHINGTON STATE
Go to wahealthplanfinder to compare private health insurance plans, costs, coverage levels and to enroll. This enrollment period lasts through March 31.
Dial the call center toll-free at 1-855-923-4633 to enroll and get customer support. Help will be available in up to 175 languages, with trained representatives available 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays.
Enroll with one-on-one help from an in-person assister through Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement; Interfaith Community Health Center; Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood; Opportunity Council; and Sea Mar Community Health Clinic.
Go to whatcomalliance.org/get-enrolled for the list of in-person assister organizations and their contact information to make an appointment.
Enroll with the help of more than 1,000 registered insurance brokers. Unlike assisters, they can recommend a specific plan based on your needs and budget. Just make sure it's one of the more than 40 health plans offered through Washington Healthplanfinder if you want to be eligible for financial help. Go to wahealthplanfinder.org or contact the call center to make sure you're dealing with a broker registered by the state exchange.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.