COLUMBIA, SC — Anita Wood of Blythewood had hoped she wouldn’t need to sign up for a policy on the Health Insurance Marketplace, but she found herself in line with about 300 others at Richland County’s main library Saturday morning on the last weekend of the enrollment period.
Wood had created an account on healthcare.gov months ago. Her hours had been cut at work, and she had lost health insurance. She kept hoping her job situation would change. Finally, with the March 31 deadline to sign up on the federal marketplace, she couldn’t wait much longer.
So she came to the library registration event to talk with a trained navigator about her options. She left without getting insurance because she wants to make sure her rheumatologist is in her favored policy’s network. If she confirms that with her physician on Monday, she’s only a couple of online clicks away from getting insurance.
“I’m 52, and I’d never gone without insurance until recently,” Wood said. “I took having insurance for granted for so long. Until you don’t have it, you don’t really appreciate it.”
The event at the library on Assembly Street downtown offered a case study in the power of a deadline as well as the pervasive nature of procrastination. Only 21 people showed up at a similar event on Feb. 15 and 42 at another one on March 1. There were 100 people waiting outside the library when the doors opened at 9 a.m. Saturday, and slightly more than 300 had signed the registration sheets by 1 p.m.
About half of those people got the sad news that they made too little income to be eligible for the tax subsidies that make the insurance more affordable for low-income residents. When state leaders turned down the federal expansion of Medicaid, that meant anyone making less than $11,500 was left in a coverage gap.
“I don’t understand the people who run this state,” said Ineise Williams of Columbia, who has insurance but was trying to find out how to get coverage for her 21-year-old grandson while he attends Clemson University. “Why can’t they do the right thing?”
Williams and those ineligible for subsidies were in the sad line outside the Bank of America Room on the library’s first floor. They were getting advice on prescription drug programs and free clinics set up for low-income residents.
On the lower level, 18 navigators helping people eligible for insurance subsidies had laptop computers plugged into every available socket in the auditorium and adjacent conference room. Most navigators were spending about an hour with each customer, helping work through the sometimes overloaded website while explaining options. By 12:30 p.m., the sign at the front of the room said “Serving No. 71.” Another 30 people were waiting.
Perrin Brunson of Columbia had a good excuse for waiting until the last weekend of the six-month enrollment period. Her husband recently lost a job that had insurance benefits. While her husband has been offered other jobs, none have included health benefits, and she’s a free-lance IT worker. So she was spending her Saturday at the library, trying to determine the options for a family whose future income and health insurance status was difficult to predict.
She tried to look at the bright side.
“If he had lost his job a year or so ago before (the Health Insurance Marketplace) was an option, it would have been worse,” Brunson said.
Joanie Robinson’s explanation for the last-minute insurance shopping was more typical of those in line. “At first I couldn’t get into the system, and then I just got busy,” said the Columbia resident.
Robinson recently tried again online but wasn’t sure about the tax credit system. She came down to the library to get help. She was one of the lucky ones, walking out having completed the process and signed up for a policy.
Hunter Reed of Columbia also made it to the policy-buying stage. The 29-year-old Columbia resident had been without insurance for nearly four years. Because he recently went back to school and cut his work hours, he qualified for a tax subsidy. He ended up selecting a policy that will cost him $189 a month.
“I feel better now,” Reed said. “It’s a relief to know if I get sick, I can afford to go to the doctor.”