Procrastinating consumers filled healthcare counselor offices in South Florida late this week in a last-minute push to apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The deadline to apply is midnight Sunday, or risk incurring a penalty of $325 or 2 percent of household income, whichever is greater.
Florida enrolled nearly 1.4 million consumers by Feb. 6 — up from 983,775 at the end of last year’s open enrollment period and more than any state with a federally facilitated marketplace, according to the latest data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The push occurred across the nation, too, with about 275,000 consumers enrolling last week alone, said Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator for CMS. That’s up from about 100,000 on average per week since enrollment opened on Nov. 15.
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“As expected, interest in signing up for coverage in the final week of open enrollment is beginning to increase,” Slavitt said.
According to healthcare counselors, the rise may be spurred in part by consumers filing their income taxes and realizing they incurred a penalty for forgoing coverage in 2014.
Omar Luna, a 38-year-old mechanic from Miami, went to the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center Thursday for that reason: He was not going to be penalized for the second year in a row.
Luna started signing up last year and then gave up.
“I tried to do it online and I went through the options and I was at a loss,” Luna said. “ I didn’t know what I was choosing. This year I saw that the penalty increased and I just figured I might as well do it now and get it over with.”
The penalty for going without coverage in 2014 was $95 or 1 percent of household income.
The Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, the second-largest provider of enrollment assistance in the state, set up shop at the community center to help consumers like Luna — just as it has in hospitals and even stores across Florida — when open enrollment began Nov. 15. It is one of many organizations working to enroll as many people as possible before the deadline.
Nathalie Milias, a healthcare counselor who helps consumers in Creole, English and Spanish, scheduled Luna for help on a growing list.
Milias said that by midafternoon Thursday when Luna came in, she had helped five people sign up for coverage since 10 a.m. She had answered four phone calls to consumers with questions about enrollment and insurance policies and rescheduled four other walk-ins for another time.
“I haven’t had time for lunch,” Milias said. “I’m supposed to be here until 5, but sometimes I stay here until 7. It takes a good hour sometimes for people to sign up.”
She and Luna were on hold for 39 minutes with the federal marketplace call center, where the call volume increased to about 1 million calls last week, to resolve a password issue. Two hours after he arrived, Luna left with a list of about 40 plans.
That night, he signed up for a silver-level Preferred Medical Plan with no deductible. Luna also qualified for a subsidy that reduced his monthly payments by 94 percent to $68. His girlfriend, he said, also qualified for a subsidy, ending up with a $41-a-month premium.
“You never know when something is going to happen,” Luna said. “I want to make sure if something does happen — God forbid — I am covered.”
On Friday, Epilepsy Foundation healthcare counselor Velkis Silva was also juggling a full schedule, enrolling consumers in English and Spanish at Kendall Regional Medical Center.
About half of people who come in hope to sign up, she said, the other half just want to be better informed about the law.
“Information is power,” Silva said. “It needs to be clear that even if it’s different languages, we share the same law.”
Epilepsy Foundation spokesman Franco Ripple said that 44 percent of people the foundation helped enroll in Miami-Dade County spoke a language other than English as their primary language. That number is a good preliminary indicator of Hispanic enrollment in the county, he said.
Second language enrollment across the other 34 counties the foundation works in is at about 25 percent.
And as the enrollment period wrapped up, counselors working in every language saddled up for a weekend packed with events and latecomers.
“In this last week, starting Monday, the increase in visits and calls has been permanent,” Silva said. “It’s been a little intense these last days.”
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This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation