Central San Joaquin Valley residents rush to beat April 15 health insurance deadline

The Fresno BeeApril 14, 2014 

Update: Health insurance counselors in Fresno said a last-day surge in people applying for Affordable Care Act health plans slowed California's online enrollment system Tuesday.

Enrollment counselors at nine Clinica Sierra Vista health centers had to take paper applications Tuesday morning when Covered California's computer bogged down, said Lizeth Lopez, programs manager.

Covered California spokesman Roy Kennedy said the state benefit exchange had some "slow page loads due to the high traffic on the website, but we are seeing people through the process online."

People have until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to enroll in health plans to avoid a tax penalty. Covered California extended the deadline on March 31 for people who had started an application or had been unable to start one when the enrollment system crashed from a high volume of applicants.


Only hours remain before the deadline to enroll in health insurance plans to avoid a tax penalty this year.

Health insurance counselors in the central San Joaquin Valley have lists of people who need help to beat the Affordable Care Act enrollment cutoff -- 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

But there were no long lines Monday outside enrollment centers -- a far cry from the scene two weeks ago when people rushed to meet a March 31 deadline and the volume of applicants crashed Covered California's online enrollment system. The computer meltdown forced the state's health benefit exchange to give people a two-week reprieve to complete the enrollment process.

"This is nothing like March 31st -- we've just had a few walk-ins, maybe one an hour," said Norma Forbes, executive director of Healthy Community Access Partners, a Fresno nonprofit agency. A last-minute rush is possible, Forbes said. "But I think it will be manageable."

For enrollment help, visit www.coveredca.com and click on "Find Help Near You."

At Clinica Sierra Vista on Elm Avenue in southwest Fresno, calls for appointments with enrollment assistance have been steady the past two weeks, but Clinica has enrollment counselors ready for walk-ins. "We have two people at our busiest sites," said Lizeth Lopez, programs manager at Clinica.

People do fear the tax penalty, Lopez said.

In 2014, the annual penalty is $95 for each adult and $47.50 for each child, up to $285 per family or 1% of the tax filer's annual household income, minus the federal tax filing threshold, whichever is greater. No penalty is owed for incomes less than $10,150.

By the March 31 deadline, more than 1.2 million Californians had enrolled in health plans through the exchange. Health plans through the site have subsidies available to help offset premiums for people with lower incomes. About 85% of those who have signed up for plans have qualified for subsidies, according to Covered California. And statewide, 1.5 million people had enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state-federal insurance for low-income residents.

Through Feb. 28, enrollment in Covered California health plans had reached 64,189 in the nine Valley counties, the latest numbers available.

It's not known how many people have enrolled since March 31, but Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California, said last week that 70,000 had enrolled in the first nine days of April.

People have waited to the last minute to enroll out of "general confusion," said Greg Shore, a Fresno insurance agent and broker who has helped people sign up for coverage. And there are people without Internet access, he said. "And it's procrastination for some of them."

Others have tried to meet deadlines with no success online.

Bridget Wright, 49, of Fresno, had a 9 a.m. appointment Monday with Socorro Valdez, a Clinica enrollment counselor to help finish an application that Wright had started in December.

The online enrollment system kicked out her application when she tried to make a change in her income last month. A licensed vocational nurse, Wright had been on disability income for a work-related knee injury but the disability expired. She couldn't get through to Covered California by telephone to make the income change until Thursday, she said, and then she was told to go to an enrollment counselor.

Wright doesn't want to be without health insurance. "I need it," she said, rubbing her knee. "I had employer-based insurance, but I lost that."

Diana Parret, 59, of Fresno, encouraged people to get help to enroll. It's too great of a risk to be without insurance, she said.

In December she lost her employer-sponsored insurance when she was laid off her sales job. In February, she enrolled in a Kaiser Permanente health plan offered through Covered California. With a subsidy, her monthly premium is $207.

In March she found out she had uterine cancer, and on April 2, she had surgery.

"I was told it was caught in time," she said. "I have a new lease on life."

She would have enrolled in a health plan in January, she said, "but I'm not a computer person."

She found help at the Kaiser retail store in Fresno to enroll. "I couldn't have done it on my own," she said. "I had someone help me."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, banderson@fresnobee.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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