By Margaret Anderson
After healthcare.gov’s rocky start in 2013, healthcare workers and officials made Sunday’s enrollment deadline run more smoothly by extending the hours for free enrollment assistance at 26 locations across Chicago.
There were 82 locations with extended hours across the state, up from no more than 10 locations last year, according to Brian Gorman, director of outreach and consumer education for Get Covered Illinois.
“The federal government acknowledges that [last year] was very problematic and anyone who attempted to use it could see that,” said Charles Watkins, a regional outreach coordinator for Get Covered Illinois, “[The difference has] been night and day.”
The open enrollment period through the Affordable Care Act’s healthcare marketplace began Nov. 15 and ended Sunday. Missing the deadline means facing a fine of $325 per person or two percent of the household’s annual income, depending on which is greater, according to healthcare.gov.
“[The difference has] been night and day.”
– Charles Watkins, Get Covered Illinois
Over 305,000 Illinois residents have enrolled in a healthcare plan through the Affordable Care Act, representing a slightly more than 40 percent increase from last year’s enrollment numbers, Gorman said. That number could rise to 325,000 after the final weekend, Gorman added, but the final count is not yet available.
“It is human nature to wait until the last minute,” Gorman said, “Starting in the last week and a half, we’ve seen a steady increase in traffic.”
To accommodate the increase in both phone calls and walk-ins, Get Covered Illinois kept six Chicago sites open until the last minute, 11 p.m. Sunday, to maximize the amount of time Chicagoans had to seek assistance for applying.
“We have more volunteers from the Get Covered staff, a better grasp of questions they will have, and our layout is better. We’re just learning from last year.”
– Teresa Garcia, University of Illinois – Chicago Hospital
Changes were also made to the structure of sites to better accommodate the rush of last-minute enrollees.
“It’s a better flow. Applicant-wise, we are getting a slow and steady pace,” said Teresa Garcia, an in-person counselor at the University of Illinois – Chicago Hospital. “Last year, you had 60 or 70 people waiting and there was a lot of frustration.”
“We have more volunteers from the Get Covered staff, a better grasp of questions they will have, and our layout is better,” Garcia said, “We’re just learning from last year.”
At the University of Illinois – Chicago Hospital, enrollees were first directed to a screener who determined if the person was eligible for Medicaid, for which enrollment is open year round. After making that distinction, enrollees waited for an available in-person counselor seated along the perimeter of the room. The hospital had Spanish, Chinese and Polish translators available.
Some locations across the city did experience problems with the marketplace website. Guadalupe Quintana, an in-person counselor with Alivio Medical Center who enrolled applicants Saturday at the Chicago Lawn Library, said the website felt congested and kicked enrollees out of the system.
“The plan is to get as far as you can with clients, and then someone from marketplace will call them back within 24 hours,” Quintana said. “There won’t be any fines because at least they were attempting to log in. It’s not the person’s fault.”
Watkins said he felt the error, which happened in the verification stage and was run by a contracted company, was corrected in a positive way.
“There were a couple of hiccups,” Watkins said. “The workarounds developed very quickly and people were moved into coverage.”
Karen Robinson, who signed up for a second time this year through the healthcare.gov marketplace with her husband Rick, experienced some technical difficulties while enrolling at the University of Illinois – Chicago Hospital but said she felt the experience was worthwhile.
“We want insurance coverage so we won’t have to pay exorbitant charges for healthcare – or the dreaded penalty,” Karen Robinson said.
To which Rick Robinson added, “It’s just like Christmas. We always wait… last minute everything.”