Health organizations in Maine scrambled Monday to keep up with a surge of people who hoped to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act before the midnight enrollment deadline.
“The phones have been ringing off the hook all day with people either finishing the process, starting the process or trying to figure out what they are eligible for,” said Emily Brostek, consumer assistance program manager for Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a nonprofit that helps Mainers navigate the process.
Americans who don’t have insurance through their employers or government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid faced the deadline to sign up for coverage or potentially pay penalties.
As expected, interest in enrollment surged in Maine and nationwide in recent weeks – so much that the federal HealthCare.gov website went down briefly Monday because of heavy traffic.
Maine’s enrollment had already exceeded the 23,000 people estimated by the Obama administration before sign-ups began Oct. 1. Only five states had surpassed their respective goals by wider margins, and four of them operate their own insurance marketplaces rather than relying on the federal website, as Maine does.
“We are really excited,” said Jake Grindle, a navigator for Western Maine Community Action. “Right from the start, Maine has been leading the country in terms of our enrollment rate and interest. We wish we had more people to help” process applications.
Many groups that were licensed to help Mainers sign up for coverage were not taking reservations for in-person appointments Monday, having booked all of their time slots for the day, but had staff members working the phones to answer callers’ questions.
At the Opportunity Alliance in Portland, Kate Albert estimated that it was an even split Monday between callers trying to wrap up their enrollments and late-comers beginning to explore their options.
Last week, the Obama administration announced a two-week grace period, of sorts, for people who had begun the application process by March 31 but not yet selected a plan. So Albert and other “navigators” were urging callers to at least get their names in the system on HealthCare.gov, the primary insurance-shopping portal for residents of Maine and 34 other states.
The midnight deadline was the most significant and controversial deadline to date for the Affordable Care Act. The insurance overhaul relies financially on bringing more healthy Americans into the marketplace. Those who don’t buy insurance could face fines this year of $95 or 1 percent of their earnings, whichever is greater, although many may be exempted.
The marketplace offers plans with various levels of coverage, each meeting new minimum standards set by the law. More than 80 percent of those who had selected plans by March 1 also qualified for federal subsidies to lower the costs of their premiums.
Maine has outpaced most other states in signing up individuals for coverage.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 25,412 Mainers had selected plans through the individual marketplace as of March 1, although not all of them had paid their first premium.
That meant that more than a month before the deadline, Maine had surpassed the 23,000-person enrollment goal set by federal officials. March enrollment figures will likely be released this week or next.
Dr. Wendy Wolf, president and CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation, a nonprofit that operates the Enroll207.com website to help steer Mainers toward enrollment assistance programs, said she expects Maine’s total to top 30,000.
“We knew this last day and last weekend would be an intense crunch time for sign-ups, and our sister (agencies) across the state are totally booked,” Wolf said Monday afternoon.
Nationwide, more than 6 million people have selected health insurance plans through the marketplaces. Observers will be watching to see whether the late surge will push enrollment above the 7 million originally set as a goal. The goal was later lowered to 6 million because of early problems with HealthCare.gov.
Grindle said interest remained strong with his agency on Monday, as evidenced by the 25 calls he had fielded by about midday and the filled appointment books for his staff.
“It really is a mixed bag,” Grindle said when asked who was calling. “There are some people who are finding out late in the game that the deadline has come up, and there are others who have had problems signing up.”
The vast majority of Mainers who have enrolled have signed up with Maine Community Health Options, one of two insurers providing coverage in Maine through the Affordable Care Act.
A spokesman for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maine, the other insurance provider offering coverage to Mainers, said Anthem also had an increase in applications in recent weeks.
“We are committed to working with consumers and regulators in an effort to help implement the Affordable Care Act in a reasonable way and to try to provide a smooth transition for our members and employers,” spokesman Rory Sheehan said in a prepared statement to the Portland Press Herald.
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