Health Care

As deadline looms, most Floridians have extra time to sign up for Obamacare coverage

The deadline to enroll in an Affordable Care Act plan is Friday, but most Florida residents will qualify for an extension until Dec. 31 to sign up for coverage through the insurance exchange because of damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

A special enrollment period for Floridians kicked in after the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared all of the state’s 67 counties eligible for assistance as a result of Irma, which made landfall in South Florida on Sept. 10.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers, then announced a special enrollment period giving Floridians extra time to buy insurance.

Consumers who do not sign up by Dec. 15 will need to call the insurance exchange at 800-318-2596 to request the extension to Dec. 31. But the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, a nonprofit group that trains and employs enrollment counselors called navigators, recommends that consumers seek the help of a navigator when requesting an extension.

Islara “Issy” Souto, statewide navigation director for the Epliepsy Foundation, said navigators can get on the telephone with the consumer and the insurance exchange representative to request the extension.

“What happens is when you call the marketplace, there’s a tier 1 representative who gets on the phone. We have to explain to that representative that the consumer qualifies, and then a tier 2 representative will manually open that step,” she said. “The first person who answers the phone can’t do it.”

From there, Souto said, a navigator can help a consumer select a plan and complete enrollment over the telephone.

Consumers can find locations for in-person counseling through the Epilepsy Foundation and make an appointment by visiting or calling 877-553-7453.

Open enrollment for Affordable Care Act coverage through the insurance exchange closes on Dec. 15. But most Floridians can qualify for an extension to Dec. 31 due to Hurricane Irma. Consumers will need to call the exchange by telephone to request a deadline extension.

ACA plans sold during open enrollment begin coverage on Jan. 1. Consumers who sign up during the special enrollment period may not have coverage begin until Feb. 1, unless they request retroactive coverage. But regardless of when coverage begins, consumers must make the first premium payment to activate their plan.

This year, consumers had fewer days to sign up for an ACA plan, and they were likely to hear less about it from federal health officials after the Trump administration slashed funding for marketing and outreach.

As of Dec. 9, nearly 4.7 million consumers in the 39 states that use had signed up for a plan — about half the total who signed up last year, 9.2 million.

Florida again leads all states using, with more than 1 million consumers signed up for 2018 coverage.

Douglas Bartel, a spokesman for Florida Blue, the state’s largest insurer on the ACA exchange, said in an email that the company expects a rush of consumers on the last day.

He said sales traffic at Florida Blue’s retail centers is up more than 20 percent over last year. But the insurer is tempering expectations given that consumers have fewer days overall to enroll and that they may be confused over the status of the law and enforcement of the individual mandate that requires eligible Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine.

“Given the unstable nature of the current individual market, we would not be surprised if our 2018 enrollment numbers end-up slightly less than last year,” he said.

Daniel Chang: 305-376-2012, @dchangmiami