Eclipsing every state in the nation, Florida enrolled 1.6 million consumers for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act during the 2015 open enrollment period that ended Sunday, federal health officials announced Wednesday.
And in the metropolitan area covering Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, a massive 756,137 consumers signed up. South Florida alone enrolled more people than did 35 of the states that also have federal healthcare marketplaces.
South Florida healthcare counselors said an increased focus in reaching consumers through more avenues this enrollment period helped bolster South Florida sign-ups for Obamacare, as the program is commonly known.
Franco Ripple, spokesman for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, the second-largest provider of enrollment assistance to Floridians, said enrollment opportunities were “omnipresent” in the region.
The organization had 30 percent more outreach to community members this year over last, according to Judy Clauser, director of special projects at the Epilepsy Foundation. That increase came despite a shorter 2015 enrollment period that lasted three months compared to 2014’s six-month-long window.
Other enrollment groups and insurance agents tried to reach consumers in creative ways, from shoe stores and barber shops to mall kiosks.
“Pretty soon we’ll have drive-throughs,” Clauser said.
Wednesday’s data also revealed that the Sunshine State, which has a federally-run marketplace, surpassed the state-run exchange leader, California, which enrolled 1.4 million consumers by Sunday’s deadline.
Florida consistently led in enrollment among states with a federally-facilitated marketplace since the enrollment period opened on Nov. 15.
“We are very pleased about the enrollment of the key southern region,” said Kevin Counihan, CEO of the Affordable Care Act marketplace, referring to the southern states. “But we are not waving the flag here. We had a good second year and we’ve got a good ways to go.”
This was the second year that consumers face a penalty if they don’t have health coverage. The fee for those who fail to meet the deadline is $325 or 2 percent of household income, whichever is greater. The enrollment deadline was extended through midnight Sunday for any consumers who had difficulty enrolling over the weekend because of technical glitches.
Nationwide, 11.4 million consumers signed up for coverage either by enrolling in a plan for the first time or automatically re-enrolling in a federally-facilitated or state-run marketplace, Counihan said, surpassing target enrollment by 10 percent.
Last weekend was the most successful of any since the open enrollment period began, he said.
“It was a blowout weekend for us,” Counihan said. “When you see this kind of enrollment it clearly validates the fact that we believe we are offering products and services that people value.”
He said improvements for customers are in the works. On Saturday, glitches on the HealthCare.gov site involving income verification prevented consumers from signing up before the deadline. The call center also experienced longer-than-average wait times that posed a barrier for some enrollees.
“We are certainly not saying that we are perfect,” Counihan said. “We have a ways to go still in terms of making the customer experience easier and simpler.”
During a conference call Wednesday afternoon, Walton County business owner Robert Mandler, Jr., in the Florida Panhandle, said he was reluctant to enroll under the ACA, but painful tonsils during the 2014 enrollment period pushed him to pick a plan and see a doctor.
Mandler‘s doctor visit revealed a grim diagnosis: late-stage cancer.
“To be frank with you, I was going to pay the penalty,” Mandler said. “But now that I had this experience, I have to tell you that I was wrong.”
He has had radiation and chemotherapy, and is now cancer free. The cost for treatment was $224,000. With his $118-a-month plan, he paid a $2,000 deductible and $1,500 in co-pays.
“Without my marketplace insurance, I would have gone bankrupt or died,” Mandler said. “I know that health insurance has saved my life and has given me a new life.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.
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This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.