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HealthCare Checkup

The Seattle Times health-care team tracks the local impact of the Affordable Care Act.

March 31, 2014 at 2:52 PM

Rush of health insurance sign ups in final hours

In the last days to sign up for health insurance, thousands of people around Washington flocked to enrollment events or logged on themselves to find coverage.

“Our clinics have been flooded all morning and our call center has been fielding calls this morning from people wanting to know what they should do to enroll,” said Elizabeth Winders, manager of Medicaid programs with HealthPoint, a nonprofit that operates multiple King County area health clinics.

“And the website went down for a while earlier,” Winder said by email on Monday. “It’s going to be a crazy day.”

According to preliminary numbers, approximately 140,000 people had purchased insurance plans through the state by the end of the weekend, said Michael Marchand spokesman for the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange. That’s a bump of about 9,000 people over four days.

Under the Affordable Care Act, March 31 is the last day for the uninsured to get coverage or face a penalty for going without health insurance.

In Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood Sunday, 200 people showed up at a food bank to get sign-up help from trained navigators. At HealthPoint’s Midway clinic, folks eager to get help packed the reception waiting area, filling out exchange application forms as the movie “Frozen” mesmerized kids in tow. Navigators there helped 137 people on Saturday alone.

Around lunchtime Monday the sign ups hit a snag when the Healthplanfinder website was briefly out of service.

“People were sitting around waiting for it to come back online,” said Keith Seinfeld, spokesman for Public Health — Seattle & King County.

Public Health staff were holding six enrollment events Monday and also answering their own exchange help phone line, which was ringing non-stop, Seinfeld said.

News reports said that the federal site shutdown multiple times on Monday. As the Washington Post reported:

Federal health officials said that a midday shutdown was caused primarily by the large numbers of customers coming to the federal website, while software problems were responsible for the site opening about three hours late in the morning.

“We predicted it would be a substantial number of people who at the very end, when faced with the deadline, enrolled,” Jay Carney, White House press secretary, told reporters Monday at the daily briefing.

South Sound Outreach, which provides human services for residents in Pierce County, was completely booked with appointments Monday for people needing enrollment help.

“The website is working slowly; it’s churning slowly,” said executive director Roberta Marsh. “It’s being well used.”

Healthplanfinder is used not only to sell insurance  plans, but also to enroll people in Medicaid programs. That way, if someone loses a job or finds employment and needs to move back and forth between private insurance and Medicaid, they stay within the same system. But that also meant that the system has to meet a lot of needs and serve a lot of people.

Marchand acknowledged that there were problems with the site, which launched Oct. 1. But he was pleased with its performance overall. When you tally up how many people have bought private insurance or used the site for Medicaid enrollment, that number could top 1 million by the end of March, Marchand said.

“For a website that didn’t exist six months ago,” he said, “that’s pretty amazing. We feel like we’ve built a solid foundation for this, for the future moving forward.”

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