By mid-morning Monday, the state’s only health insurance co-op was getting so many calls — How do I get insurance by the deadline? Did the federal marketplace send over my sign-up information yet? How do I make a payment? — that its CEO grabbed a free desk and started answering phones.
So did its chief human resources officer. And pretty much every other employee at Maine Community Health Options in Lewiston.
The insurance company normally averages 1,000 to 1,100 calls a day. By 3 p.m. Monday, the nonprofit insurance company had received 1,611 calls — and had at least three more hours in its day to go.
“I think today it’s going to be busy all day,” said Jane Cariello, director of service operations. “We stay here until every call is answered. … We’ve offered overtime to everybody today.”
Monday marked one of the biggest deadlines for the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” Uninsured Americans had until midnight to begin signing up for health insurance, with the six-month open enrollment period winding to a close. Those who started the process have until mid-April to finish it.
Those who failed to start the sign-up process — or don’t complete it — must either qualify for an exemption or pay a penalty.
Individuals will not be able to buy health insurance between April 1 and Nov. 15 unless they have a qualifying life event, such as a divorce, job loss or birth of a baby.
Although Americans could buy insurance from any company or through a broker, they can only qualify for a subsidy, or discount, by buying through the marketplace.
Maine has emerged as a leader in enrollment, signing up more than 25,000 people for private health insurance through Healthcare.gov as of March 1. That beat the target set by President Barack Obama’s administration for the entire open enrollment period.
Experts expected thousands more to follow as the March 31 deadline loomed. Across Maine, health advocates were swamped with questions as residents rushed to sign up in time.
Many were stymied by technical problems with Healthcare.gov. The website, which serves as the federal government’s gateway for the marketplaces in Maine and 35 other states, stumbled twice on deadline day, pushed beyond its capacity with 1.2 million visits through noon. Many consumers couldn’t start new applications, while others were invited to leave contact information so they could be contacted when the call volumes diminished.
Maine Community Health Options is one of two Maine companies that sold plans through the marketplace, along with Anthem. MCHO wasn’t quite as busy Monday as it was leading up to Jan. 1, the last big ACA deadline, but calls were steady.
Many had just signed up and were told by the marketplace to call to make sure MCHO had their information. The problem: It can take days for that information to get forwarded to MCHO.
“People are anxious about that because they want to have coverage,” Cariello said. “We want to help them, but we can’t see them [in the computer system] yet.”
Other callers had tried to sign up through the federal marketplace online but couldn’t. A message on the site asked people to leave their email address and try back later.
Kevin Lewis, MCHO’s chief executive officer, believes the two-week grace period will help those caught in the last-minute rush.
“I think it works better for everybody and doesn’t leave people out in the cold,” he said.
In South Portland, Theresa Grainger of Limington found a new MCHO health insurance plan with help from Kate Albert, a certified navigator at the Opportunity Alliance. Monday’s Healthcare.gov outage prevented Grainger from actually enrolling in the plan, but she created an account, qualifying her for extra time past the official deadline.
Grainger, 51, lost her health benefits on March 3 after leaving a full-time retail job and now works part time as a gas station cashier and school bus driver in Saco. She took time off from both jobs to meet with Albert Monday morning.
“I want to make a logical and virtually sound financial decision,” she said. “I don’t want to just take anything because I’m on a deadline at the last minute. It wasn’t planned this way.”
Grainger is eyeballing a plan that would cost her an estimated $110 monthly in premiums, the same amount she contributed toward her last employer plan. She qualified for a subsidy to help her afford the premium, and a tax credit to offset her out-of-pocket costs, which would top out at $1,000 a year. With the policy, which carries a $500 deductible, Grainger also could visit her longtime primary care doctor in Sanford for just $10 a visit.
Healthcare.gov has pledged that a representative will call her within the next few days to formally sign her up for coverage.
“I made the deadline, I’ve picked a plan, I’ve become educated in the health marketplace, and I’m going to be on time for work,” she said.
Advocacy groups in other parts of the state reported being busy or steady during the day.
Phone lines remained lit up through early afternoon at the advocacy group Consumers for Affordable Health Care in Augusta.
“We are hearing from lots of people who need a little guidance completing the last steps of enrollment, as well as some who are just getting start[ed] (and everything in between),” staffer Emily Brostek wrote in an email.
Community Concepts in Lewiston hosted its last walk-in enrollment event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday. By 1 p.m., a pair of application assisters had helped three people and were speaking with two others. Two more were waiting in line.
“Most of them we’ve seen have tried to navigate the system and are having difficulties. So it seems like we’re seeing people that are already part way through the process,” said Lisa McGee, director of community support services for Community Concepts and an application assistant.
Kathy Peters of Sumner was one of those people.
Self-employed and unable to get on her husband’s insurance, she has been uninsured for three years.
She tried to sign up online through the marketplace before.
“I’m not very good at it, I discovered. Every time I went into the website it told me something different, and I got really frustrated and just stopped. And then I realized the options were coming to an end,” she said.
Peters hoped to get help Monday, though she wasn’t really worried about missing the deadline. “They said as long as you had your name in in time, they could still hold it over for a couple of days,” she said.