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Tampa Bay residents sign up as health insurance deadline looms

TAMPA — It took a ladder and gravity to teach construction worker Eric Jefferson everything he needed to know about health insurance.

Breaking a heel and ankle in a fall last year, the uninsured Jefferson said he accumulated $20,000 in medical bills he couldn't afford. Paying for physical therapy was out of the question.

"So I've been trying to do my own physical therapy," said Jefferson, 42, of Tampa.

But on Sunday Jefferson was one of a few dozen people who visited the Jackson Heights NFL Youth Education Town Center on Lake Avenue trying to beat today's deadline for signing up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The event was organized by the Family Healthcare Foundation in Tampa, one of numerous groups employing enrollment specialists called navigators.

Folks have until midnight tonight to sign up or face a potential tax penalty.

As it turned out, Jefferson has to come back. He said a glitch prevented him from getting a subsidy for which he should qualify. The problem, he said, is minor and he is confident he will get affordable insurance.

"I could have used the insurance when I got hurt," Jefferson said. "It's ridiculous to live without insurance. I'd avoid going to the doctor when a lot of stuff happens. I just forgot about it."

Melanie Hall, executive director of the foundation, said the ACA website was working quickly and smoothly on Sunday.

On average, it took about 30 to 40 minutes to sign up individuals for a plan, she said.

"We were braced for website (delays) this weekend" as people rushed to meet the deadline, Hall said. "I wouldn't say the site is 100 percent. I think there are times when there's a slow reaction time or times when someone occasionally gets kicked off. That's infrequent."

What's the tax penalty for most Americans who do not sign up?

For 2014, the penalty is the greater of either 1 percent of income or $95 per adult, $47.50 per child or $285 per family for the year, according to Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

Not all face a penalty, including anyone who would have to pay more than 8 percent of their household income for the cheapest policy available.

The IRS can deduct the penalty from someone's tax refund. But the IRS cannot impose a property lien or garnish wages, according to the New York Times.

Chris Shoats, 24, of Brandon, who said he has never had health insurance, was prompted to sign up for a policy after a voice of authority told him to get moving.

"My grandmother sent me here," he said before sitting down with a navigator. "She told me it was near the last day and I better do it or they would take $100 out of my taxes."

One couple, Felicia and Glen Gant, waited for an open computer at the center to sign up. Felicia Gant already has insurance. So only Glen was signing up.

"He's really excited," she said. "But I'm still going to have to twist his arm to get him to visit the doctor."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com.

>>FAST FACTS

Finding a plan

Many hospitals, health centers and government offices are offering in-person assistance with enrollment. Get a complete list at healthcare.gov, or call the Health Insurance Marketplace toll-free at 1-800-318-2596. You also can go to an independent insurance agent — one who works with all insurers — for help finding a plan.

Tampa Bay residents sign up as health insurance deadline looms 03/30/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 9:33pm]

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