HOLIDAY — After working 15 years as a teacher's aide for the Pasco County School District, Diane Bitler got laid off. Not only did she lose a paycheck, she lost her health insurance, too.
So she turned to Good Samaritan Clinic, a nonprofit agency in New Port Richey that serves the uninsured.
"They've been taking good care of me," said Bitler, 52, who lost her job nearly two years ago and now works 20 hours a week as a clerk for a dental practice.
With the Affordable Care Act requiring her to buy health insurance, Bitler wondered: Can she afford it and will she have to stop going to Good Samaritan?
"No one knows," said Bitler, who was among about a dozen Pasco residents who showed up last week at a seminar sponsored by Premier Community Healthcare Group, a federally qualified primary care clinic with locations across the county.
The groups were led by certified application counselors, who are funded by a $138,000 grant the clinic received to lead people through the application process and answer questions about Obamacare.
Outside of government agencies and hospitals, most Pasco County businesses employ fewer than 50 workers, according to the Pasco Economic Development Council. Those businesses aren't required to offer health insurance to employees under the new law, but the workers are required to buy it or pay a fine if they don't qualify for Medicaid. That leaves the federally run marketplace as the place to buy a plan and see if their income qualifies for subsidies to pay premiums. Open enrollment began Tuesday and ends March 31. For plans that begin Jan. 1, the deadline to apply is Dec. 15.
"We've had a good response," said Cheryl Pollock, business development director for Premier. She said the meetings were general presentations, with follow-up calls for individuals. Most people were sincerely interested, though a few made negative comments about the new law. Despite all the publicity, some people still aren't aware of it.
"We have people walking around town saying, 'What? There's a health care law?' " she said.
At last week's meeting, there turned out to be mostly questions about individual cases.
Some wondered which state to claim as a residence if they owned property in more than one. Another who was to become eligible for Medicare a few months after Obamacare kicked in wondered if she would be penalized if she spent those months without insurance. A man asked about his brother's wife, who had never worked outside the home, whether she would be eligible for Medicare when the time came.
Certified application counselor Nicole John wrote down the questions, promised to find out answers and get back to those who asked.
"I appreciate the questions because I'll be able to learn from them," she said.
Cindy Perkins, 62, attended because she wanted to know how she could apply since her husband was taking early retirement and she would lose spousal coverage. She wondered if accessing the system would ever get easier as more people are forced to turn to the marketplaces.
She said she had seen "socialized medicine" having once lived in Canada.
"I was not impressed," she said.
The high number of applicants on the first couple of days made it impossible for many residents to log onto the website or for counselor John to walk them through it.
"I guess that shows how tremendous the need was for it," she said.
So John explained the process verbally: You enter information such as the state in which you live, your age and income. The site will then return a list of available plans, which you can choose from based on your needs and budget.
One man wondered if that meant those reporting lower incomes would be limited to cheaper, less generous plans.
Not true, John said.
"You will be given the option of a platinum plan," she said. "But you will want to pick a plan you can afford."
The law still leaves about 1 million Floridians without coverage because the state refused to expand Medicaid. Undocumented immigrants also will not qualify for insurance in the marketplaces.
Pollock, the Premier official, said her company, which provides care to the uninsured in addition to those on government or private plans, will continue to play a big role in serving those who fall through the cracks.
About 7,165 — or 45 percent — of the clinic's patients are currently uninsured.
"This is a great moment for so many people in our community," said Kim Schuknecht, Premier's CEO.
Although the clinic provides a wide range of primary care, specialty care is often a challenge for the uninsured.
"We plan to educate all our eligible patients about their new health care insurance options and also promote consumer education sessions in public locations to encourage all eligible Pasco residents to get covered," she said.
As for Bitler, she's likely out of luck. According to Good Samaritan's website, those with insurance, including Medicaid, can't be treated at the clinic. Bitler said she's not happy about it, but she has no choice.
"I guess I'll have to go through the marketplace," she said.