HOUSTON (AP) — The scene in a city-owned building may look like a hurricane has swept through Houston: Nurses giving vaccine shots, people scurrying around with files and papers and officials leaning over computers helping bleary-eyed parents fill out forms as their children munch on free pretzels.
But this is no hurricane. Instead, it is Houston's offensive to reach more than 1 million people across 600 square miles who don't have health insurance and connect them with the new federal health insurance program that began accepting applications this month. The push is happening in one of the nation's reddest states, an example of the gap between the vitriolic political opposition to President Barack Obama's signature initiative in some conservative bastions and the actual response to it by local officials.
"This is the same strategy we use to respond to hurricanes and public health disasters," said Stephen Williams, director of Houston's Department of Health and Human Services, who has organized an effort to sign up as many uninsured people as possible.
Republican governors and legislatures in about two dozen states are refusing cooperation with the roll-out of the health overhaul, but some local governments are trying to fill the gap, working with nonprofit organizations, hospitals and churches leading the outreach.
After receiving only about $600,000 in federal grant money, Williams put together a 13-county coordinating group with other organizations so they could pool funds, resources and data. He also invested about $600,000 from his own budget.
"If you live in Harris County and in the city of Houston you are footing the bill for people that don't have insurance," Williams said. "Regardless of all the rhetoric that is going on, people have better access to care when they are insured."
In Harris County, which paid $585 million this year to treat the uninsured in public hospitals and clinics, about 300 county employees have been trained to assist in the enrollment process. The city has provided staff, office space, laptops, air cards and cellphones. A seven-person call center partly funded by the city fields questions about the program, which aims to register recipients by Dec. 15.
Uninsured people are managing to sign up even though the process has been slowed by technical problems with the federal website. Enrollment totals are not yet available, but the collaborative has contacted more than 3,200 uninsured people since Oct. 1.
"The city has really made this priority No. 1," said Mario Castillo, a regional leader for Enroll America, a nonprofit assisting the national effort.