- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The deadline was just hours away to sign up for insurance in the first enrollment period under President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, and Erik Furness was just in time, with his tax filing in hand along with the hope that he could get health insurance.

The 47-year-old self-employed barber from Philadelphia created an account and expected to wrap up the process in the coming days, he said.

“Oh man, I’m very optimistic about it,” Furness said. “It’s a big, heavy load off my shoulders. … I haven’t had any health care, and in my profession, if I get sick, I can’t make a living.”

He was not procrastinating by showing up on the last day, but he had wanted to get his tax paperwork back from his overwhelmed tax preparer first, he said. He created an account at the online gateway to the law’s health insurance marketplace, Healthcare.gov, and was told that it would take a few more days to complete the process because of the huge volume of people trying to sign up.

Furness was one of more than 90 people who came into north Philadelphia’s St. Elizabeth’s Community and Wellness Center by Monday evening as part of an outreach event by Project HOME and the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.

All in all, Furness was pleased with his outcome, especially after he had a tough year in which he made just $15,000, he said. He said he was told that a plan that did not include dental or eye care would cost him 32 cents a month.

Monday was the last day to sign up for subsidized insurance under the law until Nov. 15, although the federal government has extended the enrollment period for two big groups of people: Those who started an application, but did not manage to finish the complicated enrollment process, and people dealing with natural disasters, technical difficulties, family problems or other special circumstances.

Health care advocates and the not-for-profit Blues insurance companies in Pennsylvania were pushing to get people to sign up before the deadline.

In Philadelphia, Independence Blue Cross turned its downtown office lobby into an enrollment triage center, complete with extra tables, chairs, computers and a local radio station broadcasting from there to bolster a marketing effort that has included a mobile enrollment bus.

Brian Lobley, Independence’s senior vice president of marketing and consumer business, called the deadline the “Christmas Eve of health care.”

The insurer said it had practically doubled its goal of signing up 85,000, including about 40,000 people whose existing plans were not compliant with the federal health care law but were allowed to continue through 2014.

A spokesman for Pittsburgh-based Highmark said it was seeing an influx of people into its 10 retail insurance stores in Pennsylvania in recent days.

Enrollment began Oct. 1.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said nearly 160,000 Pennsylvanians signed up for coverage through the federally run insurance marketplace through the end of February. The Obama administration initially had hoped that it’d get 206,000 signups in Pennsylvania through the end of March.

Federal officials are unable to say how many of those who signed up were previously uninsured.

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