Glen Burnie, Md.--11/15/14-- Esmeralda Beanda, 41, of Catonsville, who was fourth in line, fills out paperworks after signing up for health insurance at Healthcare Access Maryland's open enrollment fair at Corkran Middle School in Glen Burnie. Saturday is the first day of open enrollment in Maryland and the nation on healthcare exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act for the uninsured and those who do not get insurance through their employers. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun) DSC_7344 hs-exchange-p2-fair lam
Glen Burnie, Md.--11/15/14-- Esmeralda Beanda, 41, of Catonsville, who was fourth in line, fills out paperworks after signing up for health insurance at Healthcare Access Maryland's open enrollment fair at Corkran Middle School in Glen Burnie. Saturday is the first day of open enrollment in Maryland and the nation on healthcare exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act for the uninsured and those who do not get insurance through their employers. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun) DSC_7344 hs-exchange-p2-fair lam (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Esmeralda Banda had marked Saturday on her calendar and arranged to have a co-worker cover her shift at Chik-Fil-A.

At 41, she figured it was time to get health care.

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"I'm getting older, I'm getting sick more, and I don't want to be paying as much out of pocket," the Catonsville resident said.

Saturday was the first day of open enrollment in Maryland and around the nation on exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act for people who do not get health insurance through employers. In Maryland, residents received their first shot at gaining coverage at an enrollment fair in Glen Burnie, hosted by the state's nonprofit partner HealthCare Access Maryland.

Banda arrived at 9:22 a.m., 38 minutes early. She was fourth in line. By 9:30 a.m., about a dozen people were waiting, and organizers decided to get the day started early. Less than an hour later, she became the first enrollee on the state's new exchange website. Her plan will cost her $97 a month, she said, and her co-pay will be zero.

"I feel awesome," she said. "It's a relief. I feel that it's going to work for me."

State officials hope so. Following a disastrous rollout of the state's original exchange website last year — which crashed on its first day in October 2013 — officials decided to scrap the code and adopt a Connecticut model that had proved successful. Last week, the new site was put online so consumers could browse plans, but not buy them. Thousands of people took advantage, exchange officials said.

The fair Saturday was a first test for the new site with live customers. Access will be expanded to other brokers and health departments in coming days, and to the general public on Wednesday.

Between now and February, when open enrollment ends, the state will host several more enrollment fairs. They've also opened new storefront locations, including in Reisterstown and Pasadena, and staffed call centers, which people can dial starting Sunday.

"We want to get the word out that this is a system that really works," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who buzzed around the fair at Corkran Middle School chatting with new enrollees. "In the end, access to good health care sells itself, but what we're doing is making that easier."

Surveys have shown that about 800,000 people lacked insurance in Maryland before health care reform. It's not clear how many are uninsured now.

By noon Saturday, a diverse crowd of about 100 people had arrived at the fair for help. The 50 or so "navigators" assisting them occasionally held up blue octagonal signs that read "TECH," signaling they had a technical question. Each time, a support staff member would sweep across the room to help.

"Choosing a health insurance plan is a complicated task," said Carolyn Quattrocki, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. "And we did find last year that people really did appreciate the chance to meet with people face to face."

As people moved through the process, they seemed happy, and officials seemed relieved.

Sign up this year seemed "más rápido," or faster, than last year, said Janina Medranda, 40, of Hagerstown, who was re-enrolling with her husband, Jorge Rodriguez, 33. Those who received federal subsidies to buy private plans on the exchange in Maryland — about 80 percent of the 81,000 consumers — will need to re-enroll to keep their subsidies.

"That's a load off," said Jon Merrill, 31, shortly after enrolling in a plan with his wife, Christina Umberger, 21.

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Merrill, of Dundalk, said he lost his job with benefits in August, and hasn't been able to find work since. Umberger is also unemployed, looking to go back to school, she said.

Merrill said the fair was a great option — better than waiting for the website to open to the public on Wednesday.

"Coming here for an hour or so of my time was much more efficient than waiting," he said.

Alice Miller agreed, though she walked out of the fair still weighing her options.

The 64-year-old Glen Burnie resident works at a holiday products warehouse in Hanover from October to March. She's thinking about retiring, but isn't quite eligible for Medicare yet. Looking at the exchange website at home felt overwhelming, she said.

"There are more circumstances people have than the cut-and-dry that's online," she said, and she appreciated getting a little "face time" with someone who could discuss options with her.

"I got my questions answered," she said. "Now I just have to decide what to do."

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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