Last-Minute Applicants Jam Enrollment Offices, U.S. Hotline
By LOUISE RADNOFSKY and JENNIFER CORBETT DOOREN
Last-minute applicants for health insurance strained enrollment offices over the weekend, triggering long lines, extra security and hours of waiting across the country ahead of Monday’s federal deadline.
HealthCare.gov, the federal website, blocked some applicants late Friday but didn’t show major technological problems as consumers rushed before the end of the 2014 open-enrollment period for obtaining insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
But the system’s human capacity maxed out, with too few “navigators” and other enrollment workers to steer consumers through the complex application process. As a result, many people were told to try again after Monday under recently announced federal and state extensions aimed at those who get stuck while applying.
In Silver Spring, Md., hundreds of people lined up hours before a Montgomery County health service center opened at 10 a.m. Saturday to help people sign up on the state’s problem-plagued insurance exchange. Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s health department, distributed dozens of pink tickets to secure enrollment help at about 6:30 a.m.
By about 10:30, workers had handed out more than 200 tickets, filling the slots for the day. They directed the rest of those waiting to neatly write their email addresses and phone numbers on a clipboard so they could get an extension and be called back to apply in April.
“We’ve been overwhelmed,” Ms. Anderson said. She told the crowd: “Go home. We’ll call you back.”
Federal officials said HealthCare.gov had two million visitors over the weekend. On Friday, the site had blocked people trying to log in for about two hours starting at 4 p.m. Eastern, and they were told to wait until the site had fewer users, said a person familiar with the site’s operations. On Sunday, the site was holding up well, the person said, handling some 50,000 simultaneous users, up from a previous peak of 40,000.
Long waits to reach a federal call center for help also frustrated some applicants. Federal officials said the center received about 270,000 calls Saturday from people trying to apply by phone or resolve problems with their online application.
One woman showed up at a Swope Health Services center in Kansas City, Mo., in tears because she had been using prepaid minutes on her cellphone to dial the call center, and was cut off before they could resolve a problem she had logging into her account, said Michelle Keller, a Swope spokeswoman. Staff let her use a phone there to call a special number for the workers, where she had to wait about 20 minutes to get through but was able to complete her application.
Swope had hired an extra security guard in expectation of frayed tempers, and a few waiting applicants did become belligerent during long waits, Ms. Keller said.
The weekend rush came after the Obama administration said Thursday that six million people had picked a plan through the online exchanges.
The administration hasn’t said how many of those people were previously uninsured or have paid their first month’s insurance premium.
Republicans on Sunday called the figure inflated. “I think they’re cooking the books on this,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) on Fox News. “Once all this is said and done, what kind of insurance will those people actually have?…How much more is it going to cost them?”
Federal officials confirmed Wednesday that people “in line” on March 31 in most parts of the country will be allowed to continue past the deadline to finish their applications. They said it was too soon to project how many people might have unfinished applications at midnight Monday.
States running their own exchanges also have seen surges in people signing up. In New York, almost 100,000 people had signed up since Monday, bringing the total to 812,033 as of 9 a.m. Sunday. In Kentucky, more than 28,000 people signed up as of noon Friday, bringing the week’s total to 350,286.
At Erie Family Health Center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood Sunday, people filled a waiting area and nearby conference room as Jesus Villanueva, the manager, directed applicants while wielding a walkie-talkie. He said people were generally patient, reasoning: “Our mistake. We waited to the last minute.”
In one cubicle, Celia Rose Marks sat with staffer Amilkar Valladarez in front of a laptop. She had arrived at 8:30 a.m. and waited several hours to receive help on the income portion of her insurance application. As a self-employed real-estate agent and designer, the 28-year-old said that some months she earns thousands of dollars and others she earns nothing, making it hard to determine whether she should be enrolled in Medicaid or a private plan.
In another cubicle, Denise Dorantes was working with a couple who was trying to compare the cost of getting coverage on their own with an employer plan they had remained out of because of its price. “They tend to come in because they second-guess themselves,” Ms. Dorantes said.
The enrollment process can take an hour for somebody seeking in-person assistance. Some applicants lack an email address and need to obtain one first. Then, they must set up an account on HealthCare.gov, verify their identity, answer questions about their household and income, consider whether they want a tax credit up front or later to help cover the policies’ cost, compare insurance plans and finally select one.
In parts of the country where state officials have been unable or unwilling to run their own exchanges, local health providers and advocacy groups are leading the enrollment drive. HealthCare.gov has a directory of sign-up locations across the country staffed by 27,000 people. But the numbers are believed to vary considerably by state, and the directory gives no indication of the staffing level of each location.
—Mark Peters and Spencer E. Ante contributed to this article.