Miami-Dade County

Close of Obamacare open enrollment met with high demand, few issues

Counselor with healthcare IT company Cognosante, Doulyne Seide, draws math problems for 7-year-old Alexandra Paul while she helps Alexandra’s mother, Merlene Paul (red blazer) sign up for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act on Sunday at the Joe Celestin Community Center, 1525 NW 135th St., North Miami.
Counselor with healthcare IT company Cognosante, Doulyne Seide, draws math problems for 7-year-old Alexandra Paul while she helps Alexandra’s mother, Merlene Paul (red blazer) sign up for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act on Sunday at the Joe Celestin Community Center, 1525 NW 135th St., North Miami. Miami Herald Staff

The frenzy of the holiday weekend didn’t keep consumers from dashing to enrollment centers across Miami-Dade County, many trying to beat the clock and sign up for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act before Sunday’s midnight deadline.

On Saturday, Valentine’s Day, even young consumers rushed to enrollment sites, like the one at the Miami Heat-sponsored Joe Celestin Community Center in North Miami. About half the sign-ups were between 18 and 34, said Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, a campaign outreach manager for Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit working to empower young Americans.

“Normally what we see is millennials waiting for the last minute to sign up. ... There were quite a few young people here, on Valentine’s Day, before they are going out on their dates,” Calvillo-Rivera said Sunday. “They can tell their date, ‘Hey I’m insured, that’s a plus.’ ”

At the center on Sunday, North Miami mom Merlene Paul tacked getting healthcare coverage to the end of her church service plans.

Paul, a 45-year-old mother of three and North Miami Middle School cafeteria worker, arrived in her Sunday best — a red blazer and khaki skirt — to sign up for ACA coverage for the first time, a half an hour before the center’s enrollment event began.

In tow was second-grader Alexandra Paul, 7, in a calf-length fuchsia dress and white ballet flats. Alexandra and her two older sisters are covered under Medicaid, but Merlene Paul and her husband, Mario, will see their Medicaid funds expire at the end of February.

Like others who rushed to beat the deadline, the Pauls came in looking for an affordable healthcare option before it was too late — and before they got penalized. The fee for those who failed to meet the deadline is $325 or 2 percent of household income, whichever is greater.

Across the nation, consumers showed up in record numbers in the last weeks of enrollment. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 6, the most recent week for which data is available, about 275,00 consumers enrolled, up from 100,000 on an average week since enrollment opened on Nov. 15.

At the Joe Celestin Community Center, 1525 NW 135th St., about 15 healthcare counselors worked with a steady flow of consumers. On Sunday morning, 11 were being assisted.

Merlene Paul sat for nearly three hours as counselor Doulyne Seide wrote math problems to keep Alexandra busy, high-fiving her when her answers were correct, and spoke to Paul in Creole.

“This is better,” Paul said in English, referring to working with an enrollment counselor to sign up. Still, because of their low income, Paul and her husband did not qualify for coverage. Seide recommended clinics she can attend while waiting to reapply for Medicaid. She also will get an exemption from the Obamacare penalty.

“I feel like I’m here to help out, especially if there is a language barrier,” Seide said. “At the end of the day, everyone is only trying to live a better life.”

But the increased volume of sign-ups didn’t come without hiccups. Technical issues on the HealthCare.gov site on Saturday slowed the process.

Milton Vazquez, organizer for nonprofit healthcare enrollment organization Get Covered America, said many counselors had to reschedule appointments on Saturday when the application system failed to verify enrollees’ personal and income information.

“The problem was intermittent through the day,” Vazquez said at a Hialeah Hospital enrollment event, 651 E. 25th St., on Sunday. “But it was solved by the late afternoon.”

Sunday ran smoothly, he said, and the turnout at Hialeah Hospital — which is in an area already saturated with makeshift ACA sign-up locations — indicated a last-minute sprint for coverage by many consumers.

One lucky enrollee was Steven Brizuela, a 20-year-old music business and sound production major at Miami Dade College. Brizuela, who also works at Guess by Marciano in Aventura Mall, said incurring a penalty for forgoing coverage last year pushed him to sign up.

He qualified for a tax credit that lowered his monthly premium on his Molina Healthcare of Florida plan to $47.

“It’s a lot of relief. Now I don’t have to stress about being penalized and all that,” he said. “And I’d rather get some benefits than no benefits and still be paying.”

Follow @MHhealth for health news from South Florida and around the nation.This article was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation

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