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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014

Deadline extended for insurance shoppers

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Published:   |   Updated: December 23, 2013 at 08:50 PM

The Obama administration is giving procrastinators a little more time to sign up for health insurance through the new federal exchange.

Yesterday’s midnight deadline to obtain coverage on Jan. 1 was extended to 11:59 p.m. Tuesday after a deluge of down-to-the-wire enrollees slowed the site. The extension was intended as a buffer for those who tried to meet the Monday deadline in good faith, but couldn’t.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the overhaul, said the grace period was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to deal with any technical problems that might result from the last-minute rush. The website’s twitter account reported a record day for the site, after reporting more than 1 million visits and 200,000 calls to the site over the weekend.

Those numbers didn’t surprise “navigators” in Florida, who pushed through the difficulties to continue to help people register by the deadline.

“It’s a patience kind of a game,” said Monica Gonzalez, a trained navigator who helped dozens of the newly insured get signed up at a walk-in event Monday at a Microsoft store in Miami’s Dadeland Mall.

“The glitches are going to be there. We just have to wait until it gets back up and they move forward. There are thousands trying to log on at the same time. But it is working.”

She estimated she helped enroll 25 people by midafternoon Monday, and said she would stay at it until 8 p.m.

Melanie Hall, who oversees the enrollment effort at Covering Kids & Families, which is affiliated with the University of South Florida, emphasized that the Dec. 23 deadline was not a drop-dead cutoff.

“The most important thing to remember is the 23rd deadline was for Jan. 1 coverage,” she said. “That does not mean you can’t enroll in the program.”

Those who enroll by Jan. 15 can have coverage effective Feb. 1; enrolling by Feb. 15 gets coverage by March 1; and March 31 is the hard deadline to obtain health coverage and avoid penalties for non-compliance.

“We tried really hard not to put too much emphasis on today’s deadline,” Hall said.

It’s difficult to accomplish the entire enrollment process in one sitting, she said.

“We’re trying to encourage folks to be thoughtful,” said Hall. “This is a decision that will affect them for years.”

The federal website is used by 36 states, including Florida. The other states have set up their own exchanges, with varying deadlines.

The Oct. 1 debut of the online marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act has been plagued by problems, with President Barack Obama acknowledging the rollout was his biggest mistake of 2013.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has tried to smooth things over through numerous visits to Florida, the fourth most populous state but the state with the second-highest rate of uninsured residents under 65.

On Monday, the president signed up for a policy, a symbolic move since his health care is covered by military physicians.

Obama said last week that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled since Oct. 1. The administration estimated that 3.3 million would sign up by Dec. 31 and 7 million by March 31.

Falling in a holiday week, the deadline for January coverage made it difficult for confused applicants to receive one-on-one help locally. Phone calls went unanswered or warned of a holiday shutdown at nearly every agency listed as providing assistance in the Tampa area.

Elsewhere, enrollment counseling sites were crowded.

“It’s just nonstop now. Everybody knows about it. Everybody wants it,” enrollment counselor Madeleine Siegal told the Associated Press. She said her organization in Fort Lauderdale was slammed with walk-ins and appointments Friday, had several weekend enrollment events’ and opened its doors an hour early on Monday.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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