- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Workers at hospitals and other organizations hired to help people sign up for insurance in Iowa were inundated Monday with requests on the last day of registration under the national health care reform law.

Much of the last-minute traffic was from procrastinators who realized they’d run out of time, while many were people who had tried to register on their own through the government’s website but had difficulty.

Fifteen people were waiting in line Monday afternoon at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines in addition to the 60 whom counselors already had advised, said spokeswoman Mikki Stier.

The hospital’s supervisor of financial counseling said the number of people at the hospital for an initial application was surprising.

“I wanted to ask them: Where have you been?” said Betty Spratt, who supervises the team of workers helping to register people.

Many were concerned they couldn’t complete their application. The federal government’s website stopped working early Monday and again in the afternoon. That forced the hospital’s counselors to turn to the government’s telephone hotline, which was handling so many people it also was overwhelmed.

“It’s the sheer volume,” Spratt said. “Right now we’re being told they have such a phone overload they’re taking names and phone numbers and asking clients to give them 24 hours for somebody from the marketplace to call them back.”

Since early October, financial aid workers at the hospital trained as certified application counselors have helped 7,741 individuals, excluding Monday’s traffic.

Karen Sullivan, lead navigator for Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa, said her five trained navigators had 20 calls and two walk-ins by 11 a.m.

“We have noticed over the course of the last month that people are calling very panicked about trying to get signed up by March 31,” she said. “It does appear there’s a good percent of people that waited until the last minute to get enrolled.”

The organization has helped just over 800 people over 18 weeks, about the number expected.

At Genesis Health System in Davenport, two staff members trained as navigators have had full schedules for two weeks helping applicants.

“We’ve been encouraging people to start on their own so they are at least in the system so then we have that extra two weeks,” spokeswoman Michelle Cullen said. “It’s kind of frustrating and I think it’s a national trend that people did put it off a lot until the last minute.”

The government extended the deadline for anyone in the federal system by the end of Monday. They will be allowed to complete the process.

She said the hospital has promoted local events on how to register and has pushed people to schedule one-on-one meetings.

“Just in this last two weeks there’s been this sense of urgency but I think that’s human nature and I know we’re not the only ones with that problem,” she said.

In West Des Moines, the nonprofit insurance provider CoOportunity Health says it has registered 65,000 customers in Iowa and Nebraska, about three to four times more than the company had expected during the first open enrollment.

It is one of 23 Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans or “co-ops” set up nationwide. The cooperatives were designed to assure competition in insurance plans and provide consumers with choices.

“There’s a lot of folks toward the end here who are calling up just to double-check their information,” CoOportunity Health CEO Dave Lyons said. “We’re fielding quite a few calls from folks who kind of waited until the last minute, but nothing our systems weren’t prepared for.”

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