- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Pamela Nunn didn’t expect to have to wait an hour to speak with someone about how to sign up for health insurance.

But on Monday, the deadline for most people to sign up for health insurance through the new online exchange or face penalties, Nunn faced a long wait at a Madison jobs center as she and others raced against the clock and faced computer problems.

“I’m scared,” said the 58-year-old co-owner of a custom welding business in Madison as she waited for a health insurance enrollment counselor. “I’m not sure what to do.”

Meeting the deadline means avoiding financial penalties on 2014 federal taxes. Starting Tuesday, only people with limited special circumstances - such as a loss of insurance or a change of job or family status - will be able to get coverage that meets the federal law’s requirements. Most people are keeping their employer coverage or staying on programs like BadgerCare in Wisconsin or Medicare.

The steady flow of people at the Madison center, along with the long waits, stood in contrast to Oct. 1 when the exchange first went live and the room was empty much of the day. Since then, there’s been a blitz by President Barack Obama’s administration, local agencies and health advocates to inform people about the law’s new requirements and what they need to do to be in compliance.

Just like on the first day, computer glitches complicated things on Monday, knocking out the federal website, HealthCare.gov, for several hours both in the morning and again in the afternoon. But millions of people nationwide were potentially eligible for extensions, including those who began enrolling by the deadline but weren’t able to finish.

Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, a nonprofit law firm in Madison that helps people get health care, had a simple message for those trying to sign up by the deadline: “Stay calm.”

People need to realize if they’re having trouble completing the process they can get more time, Peterson said.

Jim Kessler, a 58-year-old retired carpenter and current part-time farmer from Deerfield, said he had been too busy to come in for sign-up help any earlier than Monday. Kessler, who doesn’t own a computer, said he had been reviewing his options and wanted to discuss them with a counselor before finishing the sign-up process.

Kessler had been on the state’s Medicaid program BadgerCare but will no longer be eligible under new income guidelines taking effect Tuesday. He said he expects his health insurance costs to double.

“It’s terrible,” Kessler said.

Kessler is one of about 75,000 adults on BadgerCare who were losing coverage after Monday because of new tighter income eligibility standards put in place by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature.

Additionally, Walker also expanded BadgerCare coverage starting Tuesday to about 82,000 childless adults below the poverty level who had previously been on a waiting list to get coverage.

The changes were originally scheduled to take effect in January but were delayed until April because of problems with the federal website.

Those 75,000 people losing BadgerCare coverage have another 60 days, until May 30, to sign up because they meet an exemption allowed under the law for anyone losing their existing coverage. Monday was the deadline for anyone in that group to sign up and not have a gap in coverage.

State health and insurance officials said Monday that they made thousands of phone calls, sent hundreds of thousands of letters and worked closely with advocacy groups and health insurance providers to communicate with those losing coverage and to make people aware of the exchange deadline.

“We feel as if we’ve been very aggressive in getting that information out to these folks,” said Kevin Moore, state Department of Health Services deputy secretary.

Based on the most recent enrollment data, released by the federal government on March 11, nearly 71,500 Wisconsin residents had signed up for federally subsidized private insurance through the online exchange. That was up 26 percent from the previous month and it made Wisconsin one of just 13 states that exceeded sign-up targets.

Walker, a Republican seeking re-election this fall and eyeing a presidential run in 2016, has been highly critical of the health care law and refused to have the state run its own exchange.

No one knows for sure yet how many of the 75,000 people getting kicked off BadgerCare have actually signed up through the exchange, or how many of the state’s roughly 566,000 uninsured people now have coverage. Walker has said he wanted to cut that figure in half.

“There’s so many holes in the data right now, it’s too early to tell whether we have any hope of reaching the governor’s goal of cutting in half the number of uninsured,” said Jon Peacock, research director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. “At this point, I’m encouraged that there are tens of thousands of people who have signed up, but I think we need a couple more months of data to see just how well we’re doing.”


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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