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Health Team

'Obamacare' deadline prompts enrollment rush

Posted December 15, 2017 3:05 p.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2017 6:30 p.m. EST

— People lined up to sign up Friday as the enrollment window for 2018 coverage under the Affordable Care Act closed.

A steady stream of people visited the library at St. Augustine's University in Raleigh, where about 16 navigators were answering questions and helping people sign up for right health plan on HealthCare.gov.

In past years, ACA enrollment has been open till the end of January, but the Trump Administration cut the sign-up period in half this year and slashed advertising by 90 percent. The deadline is midnight Pacific Standard Time – 3 a.m. Saturday in North Carolina – and the phone lines to the federal program have become clogged in recent days as more people realize they're running out of time to sign up.

To bypass the phones, the N.C. Navigator Consortium was sponsoring walk-in events statewide where enrollees could get help face to face.

"We do find a lot of people coming in the door with questions. This year, in particular, I think a lot of people are confused about whether the marketplace even still exists," said Jennifer Simmons, director of the consortium. "So, we are very relieved and happy to be able to tell people, 'Yes, the health insurance coverage is still there for you, yes, financial help is still there for you, and yes, you can still enroll through midnight.'"

Ahbleza Sellars said he was without health insurance last year, and he had questions about his application on HealthCare.gov this year. So, he stopped by the event at St. Augustine's for help.

"This being the last day, I wanted to make sure I got it right," Sellars said. "The amount that maybe I'd put in myself seemed to be a bit high, and so these folks were able to help me make sure I was putting the information in correctly and getting the amount down to where I could afford it."

He had high praise for Dave McKenna, the navigator who helped him bring his cost down. McKenna said getting signed up for the right plan can be stressful.

"People have a lot of worry about medical bills. So, I kind of see my job as to give people confidence in whatever the law says they qualify for," he said. "Whether it's a great health insurance plan or whether it's not, they know that they're getting high quality information that they can feel more confident in."

Some people calling the enrollment phone line have gotten a message to leave their name and number, and they'll receive a call back after the deadline – but they still will be allowed to enroll. Simmons said officials have done that in previous years as well to deal with the last-minute rush.

"There’s always a spike in traffic on the last couple of days, and so, we expected that, and it’s not a surprise to us that it’s happening," she said.

Gov. Roy Cooper tried to ease the rush this week by joining several other governors to call on the federal government to extend the enrollment deadline by a week, but there's been no indication that that will happen.

About 3.6 million people have signed up for coverage nationwide since enrollment opened on Nov. 1, including 271,000 in North Carolina.