- Associated Press - Thursday, December 24, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - The federal government is allowing more time for a group of migrants in Hawaii to enroll in health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.

People living in Hawaii under the Compact of Free Association will get 60 extra days to sign up, Gov. David Ige announced Thursday.

The compact allows migrants from several Pacific Island nations to live and work freely in the U.S. In exchange, the U.S. military controls strategic parts of their region.

But an estimated 4,300 migrants who were insured through the Hawaii Health Connector haven’t been able to re-enroll in the federal HealthCare.gov website, because they’re having trouble enrolling due to language barriers and documentation requirements, state officials said.

The decision to extend the deadline came as welcome news to people who have been helping with the enrollment efforts.

“That’s truly a Christmas present for a lot of families who were not able to make the deadline,” said Josie Howard, program director for We Are Oceania, a nonprofit organization that helps Micronesians who live in Hawaii. “It’s very good news. We’re very appreciative of that decision.”

Once people from compact nations are enrolled, a state program covers the cost of the premiums, said Rachel Wong, Hawaii director of human services.

“We haven’t had this type of collaboration between the state and this community before,” Wong said.

The state negotiated with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to extend the enrollment time.

“We appreciate the federal government’s understanding of the special circumstances our residents from Compact nations face when seeking health care services in Hawaii,” Ige said in a news release.

Interpreters from We Are Oceania have been working in Hawaii to help people from Palau, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia enroll. But the process can take two to four hours, especially if the person enrolling has a large family, Howard said.

One of the main issues is that the federal call center for HealthCare.gov doesn’t have enough interpreters who speak languages of the Compact of Free Association nations, Wong said.

Another barrier is that the federal government has stricter guidelines than the state did about which documents people need on hand when they sign up. Enrollees are required to bring a passport and I94 form, a document marking their arrival in the country. But not everyone has their I94 form, and if it’s lost or stolen it costs about $330 to replace, Howard said.

“The homeless that were at Kakaako and the canal that experienced the state sweeps, a lot of them lost those documents through that process,” Howard said.

The deadline to enroll for coverage that begins Jan. 1 had previously been Dec. 17. The new deadline is Feb. 15. The extra time will help migrants avoid coverage gaps.

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Follow Cathy Bussewitz on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbussewitz


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