Consumers rush to meet first deadline for health coverage

While residents rushed to make a Friday deadline to get coverage under Obamacare starting next year, at least one consumer group warned that glitches would prevent some from buying a health plan on time.

Consumers had until midnight Friday to buy private insurance offered by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the state's largest insurer, and United Healthcare. Those plans would be effective Jan. 1.


Officials with Health Care Access Maryland, a nonprofit helping to enroll the uninsured with the aid of so-called navigators, said they were still running into obstacles getting people through the online process.

Those whose applications had already run into problems on the website continued to be stymied, said Sheila Mackertich, vice president of health reform initiatives at the organization, while those starting from scratch saw fewer glitches.

"The reality is that some people won't meet that Jan. 1 enrollment," Mackertich said.

The website has been plagued by technical problems since it launched, and several insurers had extended the deadline to obtain Jan. 1 coverage. Kaiser Permanente and Evergreen Health Cooperative Inc. are giving people until Tuesday to buy plans.

After that, a second enrollment period starts, and people have until March 31 to get coverage without paying a penalty.

Exchange officials said they have seen a steady increase in enrollment throughout December, particularly in the past two weeks since major glitches were fixed.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said this week that 42,589 people had signed up for insurance through the state's exchange as of Dec. 21 — a jump of almost 13,000 people in a week. More recent numbers will be released next week.

The state set a goal of enrolling 150,000 people in private plans and 110,000 in Medicaid during open enrollment. Of those signed up for coverage so far in Maryland, about 11,700 have signed up for private plans, with the rest on track for Medicaid, according to O'Malley.


Exchange officials have said the numbers are preliminary and could be revised.

"Based on what we have seen, we expect that the number of enrollments for this week will once again set a record, as we have seen each of the last several weeks," Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the exchange, said Friday.

But, she cautioned, "We can't determine future enrollment based on what we see this week."

CareFirst said in a statement that interest in its plans — purchased on the exchange and directly from the company — has steadily grown throughout this week. The insurer said it is working quickly to process applications for January coverage.

It went down to the wire for some consumers trying to get coverage Friday. For weeks, Robert Michael Johnson of Towson had been trying to enroll his son Samuel, who turns 26 on Jan. 5 and will no longer be allowed to continue on his parents' insurance.

Johnson went in person to a Baltimore County social services office for help enrolling, but he had to fill out a paper application after the agent told him she couldn't get onto the site either.


On Friday, his son was able to enroll in a $237-a-month CareFirst plan. He will likely qualify for a $100-a-month subsidy. The price and quality of the plan made the hassle almost worth it, Johnson said.

"Everything just worked normal, perfectly today," Johnson said. "It was very frustrating for a while, but the plan he got and for what it costs is amazing. There is no way in the old days with his pre-existing conditions and stuff that he would have gotten coverage at all. If he did it would have cost a fortune."

Peter Beilenson, founder of the Evergreen Health cooperative, is encouraging people to use the help of navigators rather than enrolling on their own. He said his staff has figured out how to get around glitches that still exist on the website.

"We're hopeful that many people will get through, and we're leaving it open through the 31st to make sure we get as many people as possible," Beilenson said.