Columbia groups hustle to help last-minute insurance shoppers

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 31, 2014 

With only six hours left in the six-month window to sign up for policies on the Health Insurance Marketplace, Carolyn Stroman came to the Richland Main Library to get some help Monday.

She wasn’t alone. About 150 people had been helped by navigators at the library by 6 p.m. Another 75 or so had been helped at The Cooperative Ministry’s office on West Beltline Boulevard, and about 20 at the S.C. Progressive Network’s office on Marion Street. They were among thousands upon thousands nationwide who waited until the last day, their volume crashing the healthcare.gov web site off and on throughout the day.

Because of the website problems, few who tried to sign up on Monday made it all the way to selecting or paying for a policy. But the Obama administration last week announced anyone who had started the process online or by phone by midnight Monday would be allowed to complete the process in the coming weeks.

Stroman wasn’t a complete procrastinator like so many others. She had first tested the healthcare.gov website in October when nobody was having much luck with it. She later tried to register by phone and was scared away by talk of $5,000 in payments, most likely a reference to an annual deductible, not the actual monthly payments.

Relatively healthy, she was content to go without insurance until one of her friends was severely injured in a car accident last week. Hearing about those potential medical bills prompted Stroman to try again.

“I thought, ‘Good Lord, what if I fall down the steps?’” Stroman said.

The Affordable Care Act navigators at the library — who dealt with nearly 300 people at a special event on Saturday — were ready for the late surge. They played family-friendly movies on a screen in the auditorium where people waited to talk with the five navigators. The library program, paid for in part by a grant from the Knight Foundation, even brought in sandwiches for lunch for the workers and the people waiting patiently.

“We had people think they could come in on their lunch break (from work) and get it done in 20 minutes,” said Lee Patterson, who coordinated the library effort.

Even when the website was working well and people arrived with all of the proper information, the process took at least an hour. Rather than wait for the slow-moving website Monday with one customer, navigator Seneca Jackson set up three laptop computers and dealt with three people at once.

At the Progressive Network office, new customers getting into the system for the first time found they could only get their user name and password on Monday. Then the website would say they would be contacted when the load volume died down, said navigator Tim Liszewski.

A rotating group of seven navigators at The Cooperative Ministry stayed busy all day. Wanda Pearson, who coordinated the program there, couldn’t help but be a little frustrated that so many people waited until the last minute. There were navigators with little to do often in the first five months of the registration window.

The Cooperative Ministry navigators worked with 816 people in the first five months, and they helped another 886 in the first 26 days in March.

“In some respects, I can’t blame them,” Pearson said of the late arrivals.

The problems with the website in the first two months made a lot of people put off the insurance-shopping chore, she said.

But the procrastination has made for some long hours and seven-day work weeks in the past month for many navigators, who are being paid with federal grant money. Because of the extension for those in line by Monday, most of the navigators will be at it for another couple of weeks.

“This is not a job,” Liszewski said, “it’s a lifestyle.”

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