Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Health

Tampa Bay consumers race to beat insurance deadline

TAMPA — A record number of Americans on Monday rushed to beat the midnight deadline to buy health insurance, many encountering website delays reminiscent of the Obamacare marketplace's troubled rollout last fall.

The healthcare.gov website was out of service for nearly four hours early Monday morning as technicians patched a software bug. The system came back up shortly before 9 a.m., but then another early afternoon problem temporarily kept new applicants from signing up.

But unlike the website's Oct. 1 debut, this time many consumers were getting around the glitches. Federal officials reported 1.2 million visits before noon and more than 125,000 simultaneous users. No Monday enrollment numbers were available.

At the start of a 12-hour enrollment event at Al Lopez Park in Tampa, counselors said some of their clients were having a hard time setting up accounts. In some cases, the databases that back up the federal site weren't able to verify people's identities, the first step in the enrollment process.

Pedro Curbelo, a 47-year-old uninsured shuttle driver, and his 19-year-old daughter, Claudia, also uninsured, were trying to get into the Spanish-language site but got shut out. As an enrollment counselor made phone calls on their behalf, Curbelo shook his head. He said they meant to enroll earlier but got busy with work.

"If the law says do it, I do it," said Curbelo. "But I do want to get affordable insurance."

Starting this year, most Americans must carry health insurance or risk a tax penalty: the greater of 1 percent of their adjusted income or $95 per person. Most people get their coverage through work or a government program like Medicare or Medicaid, but about 15 million Americans buy plans on the individual market.

Though Monday was the deadline to secure coverage, the Obama administration is offering extensions. For instance, people who tried to buy plans through healthcare.gov but couldn't finish before the deadline have until mid April to get policies that take effect May 1.

Starting today, healthcare.gov is supposed to show a blue box in which consumers can attest that they tried previously to complete enrollment. Consumers won't be asked to prove that the technical glitches prevented them from enrolling, officials have said.

Consumers who aren't eligible for an enrollment extension, or don't qualify for a special enrollment period due to an event like losing a job or getting married, will have to wait until next year for coverage. Open enrollment for 2015 starts Nov. 15.

These new enrollment rules apply to those who shop through healthcare.gov as well as those who buy their individual plans directly from insurers.

Before Monday, about 6 million Americans had signed up for private insurance through the federal and state marketplaces. The Obama administration has not said how many of those people were previously uninsured, nor how many have paid their first premium.

Nor is it known how many people have bypassed the exchanges and bought plans directly from the insurers. These are most likely consumers whose incomes were too high to qualify for federal premium subsidies.

Supporters were hoping that enrollment would finish closer to the administration's original goal of 7 million sign-ups.

But it's too early to assess the Affordable Care Act's success or failure. For one thing, whether there are enough healthy people to help subsidize the costs of the sicker ones will help determine if rates in 2015 are affordable.

And any appraisal of the law's impact in reducing the number of uninsured Americans must also take into account the so-called Medicaid gap problem.

In general, a single person making between $11,670 and $46,680 can qualify for federal premium subsidies. The health care law originally assumed all states would expand Medicaid eligibility to help people below that level, but the Supreme Court ruling on the law left expansion up to the states.

The Florida Legislature refused $51 billion from the federal government for the program, so around 800,000 Floridians who might have gained coverage through Medicaid get nothing — though they are not on the hook for a tax penalty because they are too poor.

At the Tampa enrollment event, Carlos Ortiz, 21, was delighted Monday morning when he finally got into healthcare.gov. He grinned and gave a high-five to the counselor helping him.

But his hopes were dashed when he learned that his part-time job as a computer technician puts him in the Medicaid gap.

Ortiz said the cheapest plan he saw was a catastrophic plan for $122 a month. He said he would instead look into getting help through Hillsborough County's health program for the poor.

"I'm bothered," said Ortiz, who left the enrollment event the same way he came in: uninsured.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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