- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

DENVER (AP) - A new insurance-matching tool similar to Uber car sharing is helping Colorado’s health insurance exchange meet demand during the open enrollment period for people who need to sign up for health coverage, an exchange official said Thursday.

And an extended deadline didn’t hurt.

Open enrollment ends in January for Connect For Health Colorado. But Thursday was the deadline for shoppers to have coverage in effect by Jan. 1.

More than 117,000 people had signed up, though exact figures weren’t available, said Connect For Health spokesman Luke Clarke.

Connect for Health wants to see 217,000 people signed up by next summer. Clarke said the exchange is ahead of last year’s pace, when 113,000 had signed up by the December deadline.

This year’s enrollment period has been helped, Clarke said, by a new online tool connecting shoppers with insurance brokers. Shoppers fill out a questionnaire and are connected to a possible broker to complete the process. About 7,300 people used the tool, which is new for 2015, Clarke said.

“It’s kind of like Uber, where you hit the app and the driver comes pick you up,” Clarke said.

This year’s sign-up period is under special scrutiny because the largest insurer on the exchange last year, Colorado HealthOP, closed down in the wake of federal spending cuts. Colorado HealthOP covered nearly 40 percent of the entire Colorado exchange-shopping market, about 80,000 people.

Those customers - along with others from a smaller insurer that pulled out of Colorado for next year - have until Dec. 31 to buy insurance from another carrier and get coverage Jan. 1.

The new federal health law doesn’t punish people for not having insurance unless they go more than three months without it. So Colorado HealthOP shoppers have several more weeks to pick another insurer.

The deadline for coverage Jan. 1 was extended from Dec. 15 to Thursday because of heavy snow in parts of Colorado on Tuesday.

The shopping experience on the improved Connect For Health site got high marks from Sharon Hillman, a self-employed dance teacher from Boulder who had to find another insurer after Colorado HealthOP shut down.

Hillman said the remaining options on the exchange aren’t as good.

“I’m basically paying the same amount, but I’m getting less,” including higher out-of-pocket costs, Hillman said.

A supporter of universal health care, Hillman criticized health insurance shopping as being opaque, with consumers unable to compare plans.

“I just hope and pray that nothing catastrophic hits me until I hit Medicare,” Hillman said.

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

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