Enrollment Surges On Last Day For Access Health CT

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NEW BRITAIN — A Main Street corner shop offered a commodity apparently worth the two-hour wait on Monday: health insurance.

Dozens of people packed the retail storefront for Access Health CT, Connecticut’s public health exchange. They were in line to get medical coverage on the last day that anyone who wanted to avoid a tax penalty could sign up.

Monday was the end of a six-month enrollment period during the inaugural year for public health exchanges in Connecticut and across the U.S. as part of the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare.

An enrollment surge slowed the state website at times, and some people had difficulty connecting to the site. Additionally, enrollment was halted briefly on occasion because of technical problems at the federal services data hub, which allows Connecticut’s website to connect to national data from the Internal Revenue Services and other agencies needed to verify a person’s eligibility for tax credits or Medicaid.

Regardless of some glitches, Connecticut nearly doubled its initial forecast for enrollment during the six-month period, with 191,961 people signing up as of Sunday. Access Health CT CEO Kevin Counihan estimated there would be about 195,000 enrolled by the end of Monday. Roughly 39 percent of enrollees bought private health insurance plans, and the rest qualified for Medicaid, Counihan said.

Online traffic to Connecticut’s website ranged from about 1,200 to 1,500 at any given point throughout the day, compared with a previous record in December of 800 to 1,000 visitors at any one time. Average web traffic had been about 200 to 300 visitors.

“We’re swamped, to be frank with you,” Counihan said.

Connecticut’s web portal to buy health insurance has gained good notices nationally, to the point that Maryland has ditched its problematic exchange in favor of using Connecticut’s health IT platform.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said his administration’s embrace of federal health care reform from an early stage allowed Connecticut to get an early start and to offer a fully committed effort.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Malloy said. “We embraced this from day one.”

At the exchange’s store in New Britain, Grover Smalls said he has been without health insurance for at least a couple of years. He is a maintenance worker, and his employer offers coverage, but it’s between $400 and $500 monthly. So he goes without.

Last month, Smalls, 61, was hospitalized with pneumonia and has since recovered. He wants the health coverage.

“I’m going to use it when I need to use it,” he said.

He was among about 50 people who spent about two hours each to get insurance with the help of a personal assistant at the Access Health CT store. Some had tried enrolling on the computer, or by phone, and decided it was easier to see someone face to face.

Smalls said he supports the idea of the Affordable Care Act. It made health insurance more affordable for him at “about $200 a month,” he said.

John Davis, 29, of New Britain, said he had finished serving a prison sentence and was having difficulty getting enrolled even with face-to-face assistance.

“They say, ‘We can’t find your identity,’” Davis said. He has been without insurance since he was released from state prison. Davis described the enrollment process as being worse than a trip to the state Department of Motor Vehicles because it took more than two hours.

Robert Strucks of Newington said he had health insurance through his seasonal landscaping job. That ended in December, and he continued the coverage through COBRA, named after the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which allows people to pay a premium for their employer-based insurance even after they are no longer employed. He ventured out to New Britain to sign up for coverage.

Tyrell Walker, 41, a grocery deliverer from Bristol, had tried signing up on the phone and on the website, but he wasn’t able to get through the process. Walker said the coverage available to him through his employer is too expensive.

“I wish there was an easier way to do it,” Walker said, adding that going to the retail storefront was the best method for him.

“I heard they take you through it step by step, and that’s what I need for me,” he said.

Walker took a day off from work in order to sign up.

Penalty For No Insurance

March 31 was the deadline to enroll for health insurance for this year. Anyone without insurance will face a tax penalty for 2014, to be paid as part of their federal tax obligation a year from now.

The fine is $95 per person in a family up to $285, or 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater.

The federal mandate requiring medical coverage has a number of exemptions. For a complete list of exemptions and instructions on how to apply for them, visit www.healthcare.gov/exemptions/.


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About Matthew Sturdevant

Full-time staff journalist at The Hartford Courant and magazine freelancer with a master's degree in writing from Dartmouth. My work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Taiwan News, The Baltimore Sun and many other news sources. My blog has been referenced by Politico.com, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Georgetown Law Library and a number of organizations in healthcare and business. Sturdevant’s blog is "a well-written wealth of ideas," said The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, (businessjournalism.org, May 18, 2011). I have experience writing for newspapers, magazines, Web sites and blogs as well as shooting and editing video. I made regular appearances on news-talk radio and on the NBC affiliate station in Corpus Christi, Texas. I made occasional appearances on the Fox affiliate in Connecticut promoting Hartford Courant articles.

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