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HOUSTON (AP) -- Sara Rodriguez recently received a $4,000 bill for a six-hour emergency room visit to treat a fever. She says she can't pay, but she's also not planning to buy health insurance through the new federal marketplace.

Rodriguez, like others gathered in a Houston gymnasium listening to a presentation about the health care overhaul, says she can't afford insurance, even for $50 a month. With two young children and barely $400 of income a month after paying rent, she struggles to feed her family.

"It's the law, but I'm not interested," the 27-year-old says, explaining that she attended the presentation only because her GED teacher is making her write an essay. "I cannot afford it."

The presentation ends and Rodriguez grabs her belongings and rushes out, forgoing the opportunity to make an appointment for enrollment assistance. The crowd of about 200 quickly dwindles, with some stragglers lingering to schedule appointments.

As a March 31 deadline draws near, this is a daily reality in Texas, where nearly 1 in 4 residents is uninsured, the highest rate in the nation.

Texas stands out among the nation's four most populous states for lagging behind on signups. California, New York and Florida have signed up far more people.

Enrollment helpers here are working days on end, sometimes with no time off, as they make a final push to get people to buy policies.

They count the small victories: If only five people come to a three-hour enrollment event but all sign up, that gets a thumbs' up. No matter that it is just an infinitesimal fraction of the Texans who could be eligible for subsidized coverage, a figure the Kaiser Family Foundation puts at 1.8 million people.

The final weeks of enrollment are sure to be filled with frenetic activity. Mega-enrollment drives are planned almost daily. Weekend and evening events are jam-packed. Hospitals in Dallas will stay open for longer weekday and weekend hours.

At this late stage, education and outreach have largely been abandoned. The goal now is to ensure that everyone who strolls in with paperwork walks out with insurance.

"Sign up! Sign up," is the charge guiding Benjamin Hernandez, Houston's deputy assistant health director, as he helps with a massive effort to reach his region's 1 million uninsured.

Texas' large uninsured population makes it crucial to the success of the entire national program. But the impediments are many.

Some in the state's large Hispanic population are wary of enrolling because of fears that doing so might reveal the existence of family members at risk of being deported.

As of mid-March, enrollment numbers were only slightly more than 295,000, lagging behind Florida, another state with high numbers of uninsured and a governor opposed to the program.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has erected his own obstacles in the form of additional rules and training requirements imposed on health care "navigators."

Other Texas Republicans have also slammed the program. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, forced into a runoff against a tea party candidate after a tight primary, released a TV ad that shows businessmen and women in suits engaged in a high school cafeteria food fight - a metaphor, according to the ad, for the program's glitch-filled rollout.

It's not clear whether the Perry mandates and the intense public criticism of the law have scared off many potential enrollees. But Hernandez believes "lack of information and misinformation are key barriers."

Brenda Sanders, 54, was one of about a half-dozen people who trickled into a recent enrollment event on Houston's north side. Sanders knew the deadline and where to find a plan. She tried to apply, and it appeared she didn't qualify for financial assistance. The $200 monthly premium offered was unaffordable on her income of barely $600 a month, the part-time home care provider said.

"I'm a little disappointed," Sanders said. "Even with Obamacare, it's supposed to be affordable, but for people like me, that are low, low income, it's still not affordable."

And that is another struggle for Texas. The state decided against expanding Medicaid, despite the offer of federal dollars to help cover the costs in the first few years, meaning more than 1 million of the uninsured who do not qualify for subsidies could be left without coverage.

In the meantime, Houston and other areas are zeroing in on crucial populations: younger people and Hispanics. Houston spent about $40,000 on a two-week radio ad buy in English and Spanish. Hernandez also advertised in fitness centers, hoping to reach Hispanic mothers, believed to be the health care decision makers in those families.

Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, recently spent just under $10,000 to buy radio spots on seven different Spanish radio stations in North Texas. The spots ran for two weeks in the morning and afternoon drive times and midday to hit stay-at-home moms. One was aimed at young men.

"Their mom will be listening to the other station and tell them to go do it," Blaine said. "We figure we'll hit them with both sides with that one."

Rodriguez has seen and heard all this, but remains adamantly opposed. Sitting alongside her GED classmates at the presentation organized by the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, they run through their expenses: food, clothes, diapers, baby formula, baby sitters.

Sitting next to her is Mayde Arroyo, 32, who makes less than $400 a month working weekends at the Children's Place clothing store. She relies largely on the $780 a month she gets in child support to raise her 11- and 10-year-old boys. Often, she says, she doesn't have the $25 co-pay to take her children to the doctor under the insurance plan they have through their father. She is desperate to also be insured but not optimistic about obtaining coverage.

"I'm not going to work just to pay my insurance," Arroyo says, concluding she can't afford more than $50 a month for a plan.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, looks through the pamphlet she received at the event. An hour later, she's considering at least filling out an application. But even $20 a month is a stretch, she says. Like the $4,000 hospital bill she will ignore, she also shrugs off a penalty imposed by the law on those who are eligible for marketplace coverage but remain uninsured.

"It will just come out of my taxes so it doesn't matter," she says. "And it's way less than what they will take out monthly, right?"

---

Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at HTTPS://TWITTER.COM/RAMITMASTIAP .

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Haith: Tigers pleased to play in NIT

Monday, 17 March 2014 22:24 Published in Sports
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — For the first time in six years, the Missouri Tigers are left out of the NCAA tournament.
 
As expected, the Tigers failed to earn a spot in the field of 68 when the brackets were announced Sunday. Instead, Missouri (22-11) earned a No. 2 seed in the National Invitational Tournament and will play Southern Conference champion Davidson (20-12) at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Mizzou Arena. It is Missouri's first NIT appearance since 2005.
 
"We're excited about playing in the NIT, a tournament that has great tradition," Missouri coach Frank Haith told the Columbia Tribune (http://bit.ly/1fRCfU2 ). "Obviously, our goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament every year, but we do have an opportunity to compete for a championship. There's a lot of teams that have unlaced their shoes."
 
Missouri was ranked in the top 25 early this season, but a 9-9 record in the Southeastern Conference doomed the chance for an NCAA berth. Just three SEC teams made the tournament field.
 
Missouri teams haven't fared well in past NIT appearances — the Tigers are 1-7 all-time, the lone victory over Murray State in the first round of the 1996 tournament. Missouri suffered first-round losses to Alabama-Birmingham in 1998, Michigan in 2004 and DePaul in 2005.
 
Davidson coach Bob McKillop's program has won in Columbia before, beating the Tigers 84-81 in an upset on Nov. 19, 2004 — Missouri's first loss in the new arena. The Tigers also lost to Davidson in 2005 but beat the Wildcats in 2006.
 
Adding insult to injury this season: Nine of the Missouri's former Big 12 Conference foes made the NCAA tournament — seven teams still in the Big 12 plus Colorado and Nebraska.
 
As he sat down to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, Haith wasn't sure how to feel about the Tigers' chances.
 
"I think we were right there on the bubble with a lot of teams," he said. "When I saw Tennessee become an 11 and then Kentucky was an 8/9, I just felt like they didn't have a lot of respect for our league. That's what I thought."
 
In fact, North Carolina State (21-13), the last team in the field, finished below Missouri in the RPI (Missouri was No. 49, the Wolfpack No. 55). Both teams were 9-9 in their leagues and Missouri beat North Carolina State on Dec. 28 in Raleigh, N.C. But North Carolina State had the nation's 33rd toughest schedule. Missouri's schedule ranked 68th.
 
Missouri also posted victories over then-No. 18 UCLA and Mid-American Conference champion Western Michigan as part of a 12-1 non-conference record that vaulted the Tigers as high as No. 21 in the national polls.
 
The SEC opener was an overtime loss at home to Georgia, and the Tigers never had a signature win. They needed to make a run in the SEC tournament but lost to No. 1 Florida in the quarterfinals.

4 Mizzou athletes arrested on pot suspicion

Monday, 17 March 2014 22:20 Published in Sports
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Four Missouri athletes were arrested Saturday night on suspicion of possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana during a traffic stop in Columbia.
 
Guards Wes Clark and Shane Rector of the basketball team and defensive backs Aarion Penton and Shaun Rupert from the football team were pulled over at 11:32 p.m. after Columbia police noticed an expired rear license plate tag on Rupert's car, police spokeswoman Latisha Stroer said Monday.
 
The officers approached the car and detected the smell of marijuana, prompting the discovery of a package of Swisher Sweets cigarillos containing a substance that tested positive for marijuana, Stroer said. The four athletes were each issued a court summons and released.
 
Columbia residents passed a referendum in 2004 that reduced penalties for the offense to no more than a court summons and a fine, if found guilty, of up to $250. The reductions do not apply to anyone found guilty of misdemeanor possession of marijuana on two or more occasions in the past five years.
 
The Columbia Daily Tribune first reported the arrests.
 
Basketball coach Frank Haith said Monday that Clark and Rector were suspended for the team's practice, but not necessarily for Tuesday's NIT opener against Davidson.
 
"I didn't know about it soon enough," Haith said, adding that the final decision would be made after gathering additional information.
 
Missouri missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years after finishing 22-11 and 9-9 in the Southeastern Conference.
 
Clark, a freshman from Detroit, has played in all 33 games this season as a backup point guard, averaging 20.4 minutes and 4.1 points. Rector, a freshman from New York, has averaged 4.3 minutes and 0.5 points.
 
With Tony Criswell suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules and Corey Haith out with an injury, Missouri's bench would shrink to forwards Danny Feldmann, Torren Jones and Keanau Post, leaving Jordan Clarkson with no backups at point guard.
 
"You want me to dress out?" Haith said, slightly exasperated. "Who else can I put in? That could be a problem. It is what it is."
 
Penton is currently atop the depth chart at cornerback after appearing in every game of Missouri's 12-2 season last fall as a freshman. He recorded 16 tackles and an interception while Rupert, a safety, redshirted in his first year with the team.
 
Both Penton and Rupert were suspended indefinitely after the athletics department learned of their arrests, spokesman Chad Moller said. Their long-term status with the team would be determined after an internal review.

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