- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - More than half of the people living in North Dakota and South Dakota who have completed an application and are eligible to sign up for health care coverage under the nation’s new marketplace have yet to select a plan, despite an imminent deadline that could lead to a penalty if missed.

In North Dakota, where 10,394 people have completed an application and qualify to pick a plan, 50 percent have done so during the marketplace’s first five months. But the percentage of enrollees is smaller in South Dakota, where according to a federal report released Tuesday only about 6,765 of the 16,047 who have applied and qualified have selected a plan.

“I think it’s an adequate number based on the negative press and the website not working, which of course, brought more negative press,” Neil Scharpe said of the 5,238 people who have chosen a plan in North Dakota. Scharpe is in charge of North Dakota’s so-called navigators - people who find uninsured residents and help them with their options.

North Dakota and South Dakota are two of 36 states relying on the federal HealthCare.gov website to sign people up for insurance. Technical problems paralyzed the website much of last fall.

But time is running out for people who want to buy private health insurance and avoid the penalty. Open enrollment closes March 31.

The Obama administration had hoped to enroll 8,800 North Dakota residents and 15,200 South Dakota residents through February, according to estimates in a Sept. 5 departmental memo to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. That report also set goals expected to be met by the end of March. To meet that goal, North Dakota would have to sign up about 289 people per day, while South Dakota would need around 612 new enrollees a day.

“We are doing a fair amount of outreach right now to engage the folks that are yet to purchase health insurance,” said Deb Muller, chief administrative officer with Avera Health Plans. “We have an open house philosophy, people can drop in and get their questions answered, and we are using social media. We are educating folks. March 31st is a real deadline.”

Muller and Scharpe said they expect an increase in inquiries about how to sign up during the rest of the month.

Muller said Avera is keeping information services in Yankton, Mitchell, Aberdeen and Sioux Falls open and is accommodating weekend and evening appointments. Scharpe said his group plans to host a large enrollment event next week at a church in downtown Bismarck.

Nationally, total sign-ups reached 4.2 million, according to the figures released by the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration hasn’t said how many of those people were previously uninsured or how many have paid their premiums.

The health care law requires nearly every American to have insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty of either $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is higher.

Those who miss the March 31 deadline will have to wait until November to sign up for coverage; those benefits would start in January 2015. People will also be eligible to sign up for coverage during the rest of 2014 under a handful of circumstances, such as the loss of a job.

Medicaid coverage is available any time during the year to those who qualify.

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