- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Renewed computer glitches and a spring blizzard Monday threatened last-ditch efforts to sign up people in South Dakota for the new federal health law.

The health care law backed by President Barack Obama requires nearly every American to have insurance coverage. The six-month open enrollment period is set to end at 11 p.m. CDT Monday, and meeting the deadline means avoiding financial penalties on 2014 federal taxes.

Most of South Dakota was under weather advisories Monday, with forecasters predicting snowfall amounts of up to a foot in some areas. Travel was expected to be difficult if not impossible in some areas, which in turn, could prevent some residents from getting in-person help to sign up for health care coverage.

The chief administrative officer of Avera Health Plans, Deb Muller, said people who can’t make it to a center to get help navigating the health care exchange website www.healthcare.gov should call 800-318-2596 until they are prompted to leave their contact information.

Anyone who leaves a message on the hotline will be contacted later and allowed to enroll, Muller said.

“Individuals, all they have to do is pick up the phone, call healthcare.gov and indicate that they are in line to get health insurance; then they get more time to be able to wait out the storm,” Muller said.

Despite the weather, Muller added, the group received more calls and walk-ins than usual at its four informational sites in Yankton, Mitchell, Aberdeen and Sioux Falls. She said the group had received 8,600 applications as of Sunday night.

Complicating the enrollment process Monday, the health care website fell out of service for nearly four hours early Monday and experienced other technical problems later in the day. South Dakota is among the 36 states using the federal website to enroll people.

The latest enrollment numbers, covering Oct. 1 through March 1, showed only about 6,765 of the 16,047 who applied for a plan actually had selected one. The Obama administration had hoped to enroll 19,000 South Dakota residents by March 31, according to estimates in a Sept. 5 departmental memo to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Residents shopping for a plan using the federal website had three insurers to choose from: Avera, Sanford Health Plan and Dakotacare.

The president of the Sanford Health Plan, Ruth Krystopolski, said the group received 230 applications on Sunday alone as residents raced against the deadline. She said the company had received more than 2,600 applications through the marketplace.

Aside from the federal enrollment website, South Dakota residents could shop for coverage directly from insurers. But those who chose that option couldn’t receive federal subsidies available to some with qualifying incomes under the law.

Dakotacare, owned by the South Dakota State Medical Association, offered 19 individual and two small group plans through the marketplace during the enrollment period. The insurer’s chief marketing officer, Greg Jammers, said 49 individuals and one group had signed up for one of the insurer’s plans as of March 15.

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