By Ann Sanner
COLUMBUS: Groups helping to enroll Ohioans in health insurance plans say they are seeing a steady flow of people who are looking for coverage that begins next year under the nation’s new health-care law.
Monday had been the last day for residents to enroll in coverage that starts Jan. 1. But President Barack Obama’s administration effectively extended that deadline through today, by giving last-minute shoppers a one-day grace period in case of heavy demand on the government website, HealthCare.gov.
Ohio is among the 36 states relying on the federal website, which had been plagued with technical problems when it debuted in October.
The deadline extension drew criticism from Ohio’s insurance director, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
“Consumers are already confused and insurers are overwhelmed with the administration’s last-minute changes, yet there seems to be no end in sight,” said Taylor, a Republican and vocal opponent of the law.
Counselors at one consumer advocacy group were stacked with appointments on Monday to help people find a health plan.
Cathy Levine, executive director of the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio said interest in coverage has picked up. But she said reaching prospective enrollees has been difficult without a big marketing campaign.
“Every day we find people that have no clue this will help them,” Levine said.
The state has taken a hands-off approach in promoting the federal marketplace. Instead, officials are relying on providers, health centers, food banks and other groups who were awarded federal grants to get the word out about the law to the more than 1.5 million uninsured Ohioans.
A Northeast Ohio nonprofit said it helped about 30 people enroll Thursday through events at free health clinics in Youngstown and Warren. Most were eligible for Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor and disabled.
Bill Adams, director of Access Health Mahoning Valley in Warren, said activity around this week’s deadline has been similar to the beginning of open enrollment in October.
“There’s been no overwhelming number of calls coming in,” he said Monday. “It’s not a panic situation where there are a lot of people demanding to get in today.”
Jan. 1 is the day people can start using their new policies under the federal overhaul. Starting then, the law bars insurers from turning away people with pre-existing medical conditions. The law’s mandate that virtually all Americans carry coverage also goes into place, although uninsured people can avoid a tax penalty if they pick a plan by March 31.
No influx in numbers
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks and its partners haven’t experienced a spike in their numbers ahead of this week’s deadline, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the association. The organization is among a consortium of groups that’s walking people through the new insurance marketplaces under the federal health-care law.
Hamler-Fugitt said her organization has been focused on helping individuals who had been covered in a special insurance program because of a pre-existing illness, along with following up with people who had trouble with the federal website.
Community health centers across the state have been busy since Thanksgiving trying to get people covered and demand for help has increased in the last week, said Heather Porter, director of program development for the Ohio Association of Community Health Centers.
The trade association helps coordinate outreach and enrollment efforts for its 44 member health centers. Porter said the facilities had planned for the influx with extended hours and additional appointment slots.
Nearly 5,700 Ohio residents successfully picked health plans through the online marketplace as of Nov. 30, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And more than 51,500 Ohioans submitted applications for health coverage for more than 96,400 people, such as themselves, their spouses and children.
Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the one-day grace period was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to allow for any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.
By the afternoon, the site had received a record 850,000 visits, five times the number logged by the same time last Monday, the administration said. Bataille said the system was handling the volume with error rates of less than 1 in 200 and response times of less than one second.
The Obama administration is hoping for a surge of year-end enrollments to show that the technical problems were merely a temporary setback.
The president himself signed up for coverage through the government site over the weekend — a purely symbolic move since he will continue to get health care through the military as commander in chief. He chose a less-expensive “bronze” plan.