- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - With the open enrollment period for Delaware’s health insurance exchange expiring at midnight Monday, state officials were urging those who had not yet signed up for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act to do so.

People looking to enroll in Delaware’s exchange could find help at 20 locations across the state, including St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, where “marketplace guides” with Brandywine Women’s Health Associates were standing by right up to the midnight deadline.

“I’ve got my energy drink,” said Brandywine guide Hubert Worthen, who was planning to work all day Monday. “This is epic, man.”

By early Monday afternoon, Worthen and his colleagues had assisted about 40 people, including a self-employed man in his late 30s who left with a smile on his face after getting enrolled in Delaware’s exchange.

“He has heard such negative things, and he really couldn’t believe what he got,” Worthen said. “He’s ecstatic.”

Jose Cruz Gonzalez, lead financial aid assistant at Westside Family Healthcare in Wilmington, a community clinic that serves a heavily Hispanic population, said some 30 people sought information or help with enrolling Monday morning.

“It was crazy,” he said.

The federal government enrollment website that Delawareans must use experienced a disastrous launch last fall and was unavailable for several hours early Monday, the final day of open enrollment for coverage this year.

“I got my application ID, then the system went down,” said Arlene Lord, 64, of Newark, who finished the enrollment process at St. Francis on Monday afternoon.

Lord, who was recently laid off from her job, had employer-sponsored insurance until Sunday. She plans to apply for Medicare in the fall.

“My main focus is to have some sort insurance between now and then,” said Lord, who will pay a monthly premium of $92.

State officials initially had hoped to enroll 35,000 of the roughly 90,000 uninsured Delawareans for coverage under the ACA, but federal officials set a much lower target last fall of 8,000 enrollments, a benchmark that state officials say has been exceeded. But officials don’t know how many of those people were previously uninsured, even though the central premise of the Affordable Care Act was to help uninsured people buy health insurance.

Officials were waiting Monday to see whether there would be a last-minute enrollment surge, or whether people would decide to risk paying a federal penalty for not having insurance. The penalty starts this year at $95 per person or 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater, but climbs steadily to $695 per person or 2.5 percent of household income by 2016.

“I think some people are saying if that penalty is only 95 dollars, … I’ll just hedge my bets right now and see how this thing goes,” Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf said last week.

“I do think that the challenges in the beginning really impacted people’s confidence,” she added, referring to the early technical problems with the federal website.

The problems resurfaced Monday afternoon, causing problems for people trying to create accounts, an initial step in the enrollment process.

With the system slowed down, Rachel Linstead Goldsmith, outreach and enrollment program Manager at Westside Family Healthcare, said workers there were focusing on helping people create accounts so that they can finish enrolling later.

“The main goal is to get people in line so we can continue working with them,” she explained.

But with problems in the account creation process itself, Westside workers were printing out time-stamped computer screenshots in case a potential enrollee needs to prove later that he or she had tried to start the process.

Irving Gray of Claymont, who is switching jobs, stopped by Westside on Monday afternoon to see what his options were for moving his health care coverage from one employer to another. In the end, he decided to foot the bill for his current policy until coverage under his new employer kicks in, rather than apply for coverage through the exchange.

“I’m going to pay the same amount whether I enroll or not, so I’d just be giving them my personal information for nothing,” said Gray, 47, noting that he doesn’t qualify for a subsidy for his family coverage.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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