Lincoln, NE (AP) - Nebraska community groups and insurers saw a last-minute surge in consumers Monday who want to beat the federal deadline to sign up for health insurance.
The reported swell came as the Nebraskans ran into new problems with the federal enrollment website, healthcare.gov. In Lincoln, a local Community Action office has been booked solid with appointments for the last three weeks.
Workers faced one of their busiest days on Monday as the midnight enrollment deadline loomed, said Aaron Bowen, deputy director of Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders Counties. Bowen said the website was allowing clients to create accounts, but wasn't letting them review the insurance options available.
Among the last-minute enrollees was Carl Plautz, 63, of Lincoln. Plautz said he lost his job as a maintenance man in the city's wastewater department in December 2010, and has struggled to find another job.
Plautz — who hasn't seen a doctor since September 2010 — turned to the Community Action office because he wasn't comfortable using the website. He said federal officials told him he would qualify for Medicaid disability coverage in June, but he needs coverage to bridge the gap. In the meantime, he said, he has $48,000 in medical bills from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident.
"My stress level is a little high," Plautz said as he waited to meet with one of the health insurance "navigators" in Lincoln who are helping people sign up. "I've been known to be easygoing. But it's tough."
Cindy Balliet, a navigator in Lincoln, said many last-minute enrollees are only now discovering that they fall into the so-called Medicaid coverage gap. Lawmakers in March rejected another attempt to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law. As a result, tens of thousands of Nebraskans will have incomes too high to qualify for regular Medicaid coverage, but too low to qualify for tax subsidies within the health insurance marketplace.
Balliet said she has tried to steer some people toward job resources and other forms of aid that might help. But for many Nebraskans, she said, the cost of child care and food will continue to keep health insurance out of reach.
"You can't help everybody. You try. You do everything within your means, but when you're getting 10 to 15 voicemails a day, it's hard to respond to everybody," Balliet said.
The federal government has said that people who've started applying for health insurance but aren't able to finish before the deadline at midnight EDT will get extra time.
In Omaha, employees at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska were also busier than usual. Company spokesman Andy Williams said Monday that a waiting area for customers was filling up fast. Williams said insurance agents were experiencing problems with the site.
"It's going to be pretty high-volume all day long," Williams said.
More than 25,000 Nebraska residents had used the federal marketplace to buy health insurance as of March 1, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The number enrolled at that point fell short of the goal of having 32,000 enrolled in Nebraska by the end of February.
Nebraska is among 36 states relying on the federal website to enroll residents in the health marketplace, which is part of the federal health care law. Gov. Dave Heineman rejected a state-run marketplace as too expensive and inflexible.
Two groups in the state — Community Action of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska — have received federal grants to hire and train insurance navigators who work to draw people into the marketplace and walk them through the process. People also could sign up through the website, hospitals, insurance agents or federally funded health care clinics, or use the website on their own.
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