- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - People who waited until the last day to sign up for health insurance poured into hospital lobbies and enrollment areas Monday, with some encountering the same kind of computer problems that greeted those who tried to be the first to participate back in October.

“Some people may be getting through, but we haven’t been getting through all morning,” said Jillian Phillips, who was trying to help people sign up at a Chicago restaurant. She said that while the Illinois site is “‘working great and the new adult Medicaid site is working great, (the federal site) healthcare.gov is, I think, just swamped right now.”

Across the state, the late-night deadline had triggered a flurry of activity, causing places like hospital lobbies, libraries and other locations where navigators like Phillips were stationed to look a bit like post offices on the day income tax forms are due.

At one site, Norwegian American Hospital on Chicago’s West Side, officials said close to 200 people had signed up Saturday and another 200 signed up Sunday, with at least a dozen people waiting half an hour before enrollment began Monday. And in the East St. Louis area, an official said that the locations where people were signed up were even busier and that by the end of the day hundreds of people in the area will either sign up or try to sign up, depending on whether they can get through on the website.

For the most part, people said they waited until the last day because that’s what they typically do when a deadline is approaching. One man said he thought that by waiting some of the highly publicized computer glitches would be worked out.

“And I thought that most people would have signed up already, (that) waiting this long would work for me,” said Manuel Gonzalez, a 38-year-old worker at a chrome plating company that does not offer health benefits. But he made sure he got there early after a co-worker said he’d spent six hours waiting and enrolling on Sunday.

Others said what made them finally come in Monday and enroll had as much to do with the fine that comes with waiting any longer as anything else.

“Whenever we can avoid fees, that’s a good thing,” said Ashanti Poe, a 34-year-old daycare provider from Springfield.

For others, the delay was tied to unsuccessful efforts to apply without the help of navigators.

“I’ve been trying for days and for some reason it (the web site) kept giving me the error message,” said Eduardo Perez, 41, who was applying because he does not qualify for insurance through his job as a bartender because he does not work enough hours.

But navigators said they saw many people who delayed enrolling because even after media reports and talk about the plan by friends and relatives, they still suspected that their medical conditions disqualified them from coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“They just put it off because they don’t know if they could get covered, don’t know the law has changed,” said Lydia Vega, a navigator working Monday at Norwegian American Hospital. “They come in and say, ‘I don’t think I’m covered because I have this illness,’ and then they find out all that has gone away with the law and they’re covered.”

Get Covered Illinois, the state’s online insurance marketplace, said as of the end of February the state had 113,733 people had signed up for coverage on the health insurance marketplace. One official said Monday she was confident that the goal of 143,000 Illinois enrollees would be reached.

“We’re seeing very high demand, high traffic, high volume of calls to our call center,” said Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois. “On Friday we had the highest number of calls to our call center, 10,000. Our previous high was somewhere in the 8,000 range so we know people are paying attention and are aware of the deadline.”

Officials have said the final totals won’t be known until mid-April. But the website woes Monday suggested it may be longer than that. One navigator said the problems had left her unable to do anything but document who had come in to try to enroll so that when they tried again after Monday’s deadline they would not be fined.

Public health departments and others say the next challenge will come from people who aren’t accustomed to using the health care system before emergencies arise.

“We have to work with people who are not familiar with how prevention works,” said Julie Pryde, public health administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. “Trust me, that’s a hard sell in this country.”


Associated Press writers David Mercer in Champaign, Ill., and Chacour Koop in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.

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