- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A last-minute rush of consumers called in or met one-on-one with guides Monday as they tried to meet the deadline to obtain coverage under the federal health care law, Arkansas Insurance Department officials said.

Dozens of people showed up for a sign-up event in North Little Rock, a scene that state officials said was repeated throughout the state as Arkansas residents tried to get their applications in before Monday night’s deadline. More than 33,500 people have already signed up for coverage through the exchange, an online marketplace where consumers can compare and shop for policies.

Among those signing up for coverage at North Little Rock’s Laman Library was Michael Alonzo, a 36-year-old mechanic who said he hasn’t had insurance in six years. Alonzo said he was able to select a plan through the exchange, with coverage set to begin in May.

“It’s pretty good actually. Vision, dental, the whole nine yards,” Alonzo said. “It looks like it’s going to be fairly inexpensive.”

Cynthia Crone, who leads the Insurance Department’s Health Benefits Exchange Partnership division, said she didn’t expect to have enrollment numbers from Monday’s sign-ups until next week but said activity for statewide sign-up events and a call center had been brisk.

“Calls are coming in fast and furious here,” Crone said. “I think it’s just showing people are wanting help. Not surprisingly, many people waited until the last minute to sign up.”

Arkansas is among the 36 states using the federal website, HealthCare.gov, to enroll people. The site fell out of service for nearly four hours early Monday and experienced technical problems. Problems with the site at the launch of open enrollment last year had hampered sign-ups in Arkansas, which are far below the 250,000 that state officials had anticipated.

The enrollment figures from the Insurance Department don’t include the more than 106,000 who have signed up for coverage through Arkansas’ “private option” Medicaid expansion. Under that, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. The plans are purchased through the insurance exchange.

Several people signing up at Monday’s event said they hoped to at least begin their application, after the Obama administration announced that people who started applying for health insurance before the deadline will be given extra time to complete the process.

Gregory Wright, 60, said he needed to provide more documentation before he could complete enrollment. Wright, who lives in North Little Rock, said he wanted to avoid penalties for not having insurance under the health law. He said he hasn’t had insurance in 14 years.

“It’s something I needed, so I’m glad I came,” Wright said.

Vicki Sheridan, a retired administrative assistant from North Little Rock, said she had begun enrollment and would select a plan later. Sheridan, 62, said she hasn’t had insurance for the past five months.

“It’s been terrifying,” she said. “I’m always afraid I’m going to get hit by a car or something.”

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo .

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