- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - In an office building a couple blocks north of the state Capitol, employees at the nonprofit Mississippi Health Advocacy Program worked Monday to help state residents apply for coverage through a federally run health insurance website.

“Yes, we have been pretty busy today,” said Terri Adams, a second-year Mississippi College law student who’s working as a program intern.

She was assisting a middle-aged man who brought a stack of financial information to inquire about buying health insurance through the federal website, HealthCare.gov.

Adams told the man, who didn’t want to release his identity to a reporter, that based on his age and income, he qualifies for a tax credit of about $300 a month to buy coverage through Humana, one of the two private companies offering coverage in Mississippi through the federally operated health exchange, or online marketplace for health insurance.

Midnight Monday was the deadline for people to enroll in private coverage mandated by the federal health overhaul law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010. But the federal government said it will accept paper applications through April 7 and will take as much time as needed to process applications that were started on the federal website.

Adams told the man that even if he didn’t complete an application by Monday, he needed to create an account to show he had made a good-faith effort to start the process. She gave him a toll-free number, and as he left the office he said he’d call it for more assistance.

Jarvis Dortch, program manager and staff attorney for Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, said federal figures show roughly 32,000 Mississippi residents had enrolled in health exchange coverage through mid-March. That’s up from the 25,554 who had enrolled by the end of February, but still thousands short of the original projection that 46,000 would enroll in the first five months.

Dortch said the pace of inquiries about coverage has picked up since Monday’s enrollment deadline approached. He said most of the questions come from people who are uninsured, but some come from people who can’t afford to put a spouse or children on their own employer-provided insurance.

“They really want to know what they’ll be paying out-of-pocket,” Dortch said.

Cynthia Brooks, 54, of Jackson, said she lost her data-entry job in January after an injury. She went to the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program office Monday to see if she could apply for federally subsidized insurance. Brooks learned that she falls in a “coverage gap.” She earns too little to qualify for a subsidy that would reduce her cost of buying private insurance, but because of her husband’s retirement benefits, her household income is too high for her to enroll in Medicaid.

Roughly half the states, including Mississippi, have rejected Medicaid expansion. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature say Mississippi can’t afford to put more people on the federal-state health insurance program for the needy, even with the federal government paying most of the tab.

Brooks said she can’t afford private health coverage without a subsidy because a mortgage and utility payments consume her family’s monthly income.

“I can only keep my faith in the Lord and trust that he’ll open a door for me,” she said, shaking her head.

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