Deadline sparks rush to buy health coverage

Lynn Adams cares for patient Willie Peterson II, who was paralyzed from the waist down by a falling tree in 1998 and needs regular skilled medical attention.

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Lynn Adams cares for patient Willie Peterson II, who was paralyzed from the waist down by a falling tree in 1998 and needs regular skilled medical attention.

It was Monday afternoon, and insurance broker Ted Officer’s Alpharetta office was rocking and rolling to the beat of the Affordable Care Act. He’d brought in his two college-age kids, off for the holidays, to help people sign up for health insurance on the federal insurance exchange.

They started at 7 a.m., and by 1:30 p.m., they’d signed up close to 20 individuals and families — as many new clients as he usually gets in an average week.

And so it went, as Georgians scrambled to buy coverage in time to have it become effective Jan. 1. Monday had long been billed as the deadline, but at midday, in deference to a nationwide surge of would-be buyers, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services extended the deadline by 24 hours.

That last-minute announcement was just the latest in an exasperating stream of glitches, hiccups, delays and rule changes that has marked the roll-out of the health care law also known as Obamacare.

“The hoopla and the controversy and the misstatements made on all sides have added to the confusion,” said Georgia State insurance professor Bill Custer. “People are not aware what they need to do and what’s available to them.”

For instance, some people were unclear on the meaning of the present deadline. It’s not the last day for people to avoid a tax penalty by signing up for care in 2014; that day is March 31.

“People have been throwing up their hands,” Officer said. “They say, ‘Tell me what to do.’”

For him, Monday started smoothly enough. But just as the website was humming along, he was thrust into another wrestling match with it.

“It’s just a nightmare,” he said, poking at the keys of his computer. “It was working fine, but I just entered this guy’s information twice, and it crashed on me.”

For others, especially those who didn’t wait until the last minute, signing up was a breeze.

Susan Adamson checked her watch when she logged on to the website Sunday night. It was 8:15 p.m.

When she finished enrolling, the Decatur woman checked the time again: 9:25.

Not bad, she thought.

“It was super easy,” said Adamson, a nanny who’s been uninsured since 2012.

Not having health insurance at age 44, she said, had become too scary.

According to HHS figures, 61,443 Georgians had completed applications for coverage through the federal exchange by the end of November. But the agency said that only 6,859 actually selected health plans. December figures aren’t yet available, but by all accounts, the website has seen a rush of people enrolling over the past few weeks.

The Georgia Insurance Department keeps a more conservative tally, counting those people whose applications have been completely processed by the insurance companies. It said 5,226 Georgia applications contained information that was sufficient for the insurer to begin providing coverage on Jan. 1.

Custer believes most of the people rushing to meet this week’s deadline are among the 400,000 Georgians who have individual policies that expire at the end of the year, and who don’t want their coverage to lapse. Others may have seen their health insurance cancelled because their policies do not meeting the requirements under the new Affordable Care Act, he said.

Cathy Bowden of the Georgia Association for Primary Health Care is coordinating 56 navigators, who are trained to help people through the process.

For some people, navigators just need to offer reassurance, she said. People just needed to know that even if they miss this deadline, they can still sign up later, get coverage and not be penalized.

For Eric Norman, getting past the federal website’s pitfalls took a high degree of ingenuity and resourcefulness.

When he first attempted to enroll in October, he fought through one snag after another. At one point his application got stuck in a “loop” that never allowed him to finish.

Norman, 64, a business consultant who lives in Midtown, finally used a different email address and reached the finish line. That brought a great sense of joy and relief.

“It actually worked out for me,” Norman said. “Because I am an independent, I was concerned that I would not be covered.”

All seemed to be going well for Jennifer Sibley — up to a point.

The Peachtree Corners real estate agent had no problem entering information and selecting plans. But when she reached the payment screen, and clicked, nothing happened.

She tried again. Click. Click-click. No luck. Sibley reached for her phone.

A representative told her to wait a few days and try again. Sibley let three weeks pass before trying again. Click. Nothing.

Finally, last Friday, she contacted her insurance company directly and managed to pay a premium. She’s relieved – but mystified, too.

“The thing is, I’ve been very proactive about this,” said Sibley, who has a pre-existing medical condition and cannot afford to let her coverage lapse. “If you just assumed all was well, you’d have missed the deadline.”