December 28, 2013

Mainers join rush to buy health coverage

It was crunch time in December as the first sign-up deadline neared. Those who lost power in the ice storm may get more time.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Mainers have been flocking to the federal government’s website to buy health insurance over the past two weeks, reflecting a nationwide rush to secure benefits under the Affordable Care Act by Wednesday, the day that coverage begins.

click image to enlarge

Libby Cummings, an outreach and enrollment specialist for the Portland Community Health Center, helps recent immigrant Tarunkumar Vaswani file his insurance request at the Portland Public Library on Friday.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Enrollment specialist Libby Cummings provides assistance Friday to recent immigrant Jean-Paul Ruzibiza. Cummings has helped more than 150 people sign up for health insurance so far. She put in 12-hour days through most of December, but was not overbooked at the end. “It was absolutely nuts those last two weeks” before a Dec. 23 deadline, she said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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But the widespread power outages caused by this week’s ice storm may be keeping some Maine residents from signing up at healthcare.gov, said an executive of one of the companies that are offering insurance plans in Maine.

Kevin Lewis, executive director of Maine Community Health Options, said Friday that the co-op will try to make coverage retroactive to Jan. 1 if consumers sign up within a reasonable time after their lights come on. Lewis said he will seek federal approval to adjust coverage deadlines because of the weather.

The other company that’s offering plans in Maine, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, had a Dec. 23 deadline to enroll for coverage effective Jan. 1.

Maine Community Health Options doesn’t have firm numbers yet for December enrollments, but the total is expected to jump significantly from the 1,700 people who had signed up through Nov. 30.

Enrollment statistics for December will be released in mid-January by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the federal agency that operates the healthcare.gov website and administers the Affordable Care Act.

November sign-ups, although relatively few, showed an increase over October, when technological problems made the website virtually unusable, frustrating millions of uninsured or self-insured consumers across the nation who were shopping for coverage.

National traffic on healthcare.gov escalated through December. There were 880,000 visitors on the federal website Tuesday. The peak day for enrollments was Monday, when the site supported 83,000 simultaneous users, The Associated Press reported.

In Maine, most enrollments apparently were completed before the full effects of the ice storm set in Monday, according to health insurance sources.

“The biggest push happened the week before,” said Emily Brostek, consumer assistance program manager for Consumers for Affordable Health Care, an Augusta-based group that advocates for health care reform.

The group has helped to answer questions about the Affordable Care Act and signed up Mainers for coverage. Brostek said navigators – federally funded workers who help people enroll – strongly encouraged residents not to wait until the last day to act, and that helped ease what could have been a final-day crush of enrollments.

People who sign up after Dec. 31 can still get coverage, but it will begin in February instead of January – unless their enrollment was delayed by the ice storm.

Libby Cummings, who has helped more than 150 people sign up for health insurance at the Portland Community Health Center, said she put in 12-hour days through most of December, but was not overbooked at the end.

“The people who were really desperate to sign up for insurance, who really needed to have insurance start in January, set up appointments before” Dec. 23, Cummings said. “It was absolutely nuts those last two weeks.”

She said people weren’t procrastinating so much as they were giving the website more time to work smoothly.

Cummings held “office hours” at the Portland Public Library on Friday, answering questions from passers-by about how to sign up.

Two recent immigrants, Jean-Paul Ruzibiza of Burundi and Tarunkumar Vaswani of India, asked Cummings about how to obtain coverage. She said immigrants who are seeking asylum can’t qualify for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, but are allowed to sign up for subsidized coverage under the Affordable Care Act – but it’s a more complicated process for noncitizens.

Ruzibiza, 49, a civil engineer, said he will be able to work and get benefits through an employer, but he’s waiting for his green card approval before he can start working. In the meantime, he’s signing up for coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

Ruzibiza said he’s working to bring his wife and five children, who are in a refugee camp in an undisclosed location, to Maine as soon as he can.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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