PAUL J. WEBER
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Political opposition in Texas to the federal health care overhaul hasn't helped enrollment numbers that lag behind expectations as next week's deadline to sign up looms, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation. As of March 1, about 295,000 people in Texas had signed up for coverage -- less than half of the target of 629,000 enrollees originally set by the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Gov. Rick Perry and Republican leaders have consistently slammed the health overhaul while simultaneously refusing Medicaid expansion in a state where nearly 1 out of every 4 residents is uninsured.
Millions of uninsured nationwide have until Monday to pick a plan or face penalties. More than 6 million Americans have signed up so far.
"I don't think it's been a help when you have government officials trying to block navigators from getting information to the people. And you have everything from legal challenges to a constant barrage of misinformation," Sebelius said. "That isn't terribly helpful to folks trying to figure out what the law means and whether or not the law applies to them, or whether it's even in place in Texas."
Making a final push, Sebelius visited a United Way center in Austin where about a dozen navigators manned a call center for coverage-seekers.
Texas is hostile territory. State regulators in January mandated that "navigators" who help Texas residents enroll under the Affordable Care Act undergo an additional 20 hours of training -- half what Perry originally sought, but still enough to rankle nonprofits receiving federal funds to implement navigator programs.
Perry shot back at Sebelius' remarks, saying that the more people learn about the federal health law the less they like it.
"Yet again, the Obama administration would rather point fingers at other people than accept any of the responsibility for Obamacare's failure," Perry said in a statement.
Sebelius said sign-ups in Texas are on the upswing but didn't offer more recent enrollment data. She also said HealthCare.gov is up to the task of handling a last-minute surge of visitors before the deadline.
Sebelius said the site handled 90,000 simultaneous visitors at times Thursday, but cautioned that wait times on the phone are getting longer.
"As this volume increases, we are going into sort of new territory," Sebelius said.
Binta Jalloh, a quality manager in the United Way office, said phone traffic is at peaks not seen since enrollment began in October. Her office had received nearly 200 calls by lunchtime Friday, including more than 50 Spanish-speaking callers.
"The amount of calls we're getting this week is definitely more so than we've gotten previously," she said.
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