- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevadans flocked to the state’s online health insurance exchange ahead of a midnight Monday enrollment deadline to at least begin the signup process.

Thousands turned out at health fairs in both southern and northern Nevada over the weekend, where assistants were on hand to help people find insurance on the website, Nevada Health Link.

At the Cashman Center in Las Vegas, an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 waited in line for hours Saturday before reaching computers and staff to help them enroll.

“Lines were wrapping around the Cashman Center,” said Andres Ramirez, president of the Ramirez Group, one of several navigators designated to help people obtain insurance through Nevada’s online market portal.

As of Saturday, 40,500 consumers had selected qualified health plans through the exchange. Of those, 24,000 had paid for coverage.

The wave of last-minute signups continued Monday. People who don’t sign up by the deadline face possible fines by the Internal Revenue Service for not having coverage.

“We are seeing the ultimate procrastinators come forth,” said Kevin Sampson, an insurance broker in Reno. “We’re busy. We’re swamped. It’s great.”

At midday, exchange officials said as many as 5,700 individual users were accessing the website at one time. That caused computer slowdowns but no meltdowns like those that marred the initial rollout in October when the website first went live and continued to plague the system for months.

“It’s running slow,” said CJ Bawden, spokesman for the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange. “Many, many people are waiting until the last minute.

“We’re not running into people getting kicked off, it’s just slow in responding,” he said.

Sampson agreed.

“Up, down. We had a little bleep earlier this morning. But we’re OK right now. As the eternal optimist the site is working good,” he said.

Nevada initially projected 118,000 enrollments by March 31. But problems with the system built and designed by Xerox led to months of computer errors, billing problems and low enrollments. By February, officials downgraded their projections to 50,000 - a goal that seemed within reach Monday, though it will be a few days before a final count is tallied.

Earlier this month, the state awarded a $1.5 million contract to Deloitte Consulting, a Xerox competitor, to evaluate the system and recommend fixes with the goal of having a smoother-running exchange by the time the next open enrollment period begins in the fall.

But because of persistent problems over the last six months, the state approved a 60-day “special” enrollment period for anyone who tried to sign up but was thwarted by system failures. The period runs through May 30 for people to complete the enrollment process, provided it was initiated by March 31.

That was the focus of those working on the front lines Monday - getting as many people as they can into the system so they qualify for the two-month grace period.

“Today we’re focusing on wrap-up,” Ramirez told KNPR-radio in Las Vegas, “then being ready to help those with unresolved errors.”

Bobbette Bond with Nevada Health CO-OP, a nonprofit, membership-based insurance carrier that received a grant under the federal health care law to set up operations, urged people to keep trying Monday.

“Xerox now needs to take steps in the next 60 days to make sure those people can go back and finish,” she said.

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