Will federal site hold up for insurance deadline?
With just days left to sign up for insurance under the president's new health law, people around Florida are continuing to have mixed results as they try to enroll.
The website problems appear to be fewer than when the site launched in the fall, but users are still experiencing minor hiccups and jammed phone lines as they join the millions around the country seeking to beat the March 31 deadline. It can take several visits to the website to finish an application, even without technical glitches.
And aside from technical problems, confusion persists about who qualifies for tax credits, along with enrollment deadlines and extensions. The deadline was recently extended through mid-April for those who start the application process by Monday.
In Miami, a navigator sped through Willie Washington's application on Monday, signing up the 50-year-old construction worker for health insurance in less than an hour with minimal problems.
"You'd be surprised. A lot of guys in this neighborhood still don't have it," said Washington, who said he planned to spread the word.
Washington chose a preferred medical plan with no premium or deductible and a $1,500 out-of-pocket max thanks to a $352 monthly tax credit.
"It ends a lot of frustration because you can live a better life knowing you can go to the doctor now that you've got insurance," he said.
On Tuesday, Sandy Raphael tried to sign up at a Miami hospital during her work break, but the website kept kicking her out and she eventually had to leave without completing her application.
"I'm frustrated," said Rafael, a 37-year-old uninsured medical assistant.
All week long, dozens of students at Florida International University tried to enroll with the help of two counselors. Several applications were stalled by website glitches, while others moved along smoothly.
"It's a mixed bag," said counselor Anthony Rouzier, who was helping several students enroll at the same time. When healthcare.gov flashed a message that it couldn't verify one student's identification, he said the federal government's hotline was too backed up to even bother calling.
"I tried to call and they said 'we're not accepting calls right now,'" said Rouzier.
Gustavo Chabarro, a 34-year-old graduate assistant, said the process has been complicated. He first filled out an application in February and the system was down so he called the hotline. He was instructed to call back a week later.
"The system is down more times than it's up," said Chabarro, who is hoping to find a cheaper plan for him and his wife. He would have to pay $5,200 a year to add his wife onto the university's plan.
He finally made it through the application process Wednesday and was narrowing down his plans, hoping to find one with a low deductible.
Still, the website troubles are minimal compared to the problems in October and November. The White House announced that more than 6 million have signed up nationwide, meaning the Obama administration met its target goal a few days early.
Florida has emerged as one of the Affordable Care Act's biggest success stories, enrolling more than 440,000 through the end of February - the highest number of the three dozen states relying on the federal exchange.
That comes despite Republican opposition to the law. The state banned navigators from enrolling consumers at county health departments and offered no extra dollars to help with outreach.
But with roughly 3.5 million uninsured Floridians, state Democrats, health advocacy groups and Enroll America formed strategic partnerships to fill in the gaps in this politically important swing state, where the success or failure of the law will likely impact mid-term elections. Enroll America has 40 staff and nearly 5,000 volunteers in Florida compared to 38 staff and about 3,000 volunteers in Texas.
Enrollment events have been held around the state nearly every weekend for months. More than 350 people attended a Jacksonville event last weekend hosted by Mayor Alvin Brown and Democratic Rep. Mia Jones. About 150 signed up for health plans, said Tony Penna, a field director for Enroll America.
University of Miami medical students staffed a health fair earlier this month attended by 170 consumers. Children played in bounce houses, ate snow cones and had their faces painted, while adults underwent health screenings including blood pressure, cholesterol and bone density exams. Ads ran on Spanish and Creole radio stations targeting residents in Liberty City, a low-income Miami suburb. Planned Parenthood blanketed the area with fliers in the days leading up to the event.
Liann Gomez, a 23-year-old senior at Florida International, and her 22-year-old sister said the enrollment process didn't take as long as they thought and were thrilled to find they qualified for tax credits. They're still figuring out which insurance plan to pick, but hoped to decide soon.
"We haven't been to the doctor in a long time because we can't afford it," Gomez said. "So when we get the insurance, I'm going straight to the doctor."
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