From walk-in storefronts and union halls to mall kiosks and call center hotlines, health care officials are braced for a wave of last-minute sign-ups for the Affordable Care Act, both here and nationwide. Whether itll be a trickle or a tsunami is anyones guess.
With Mondaysdeadline for enrolling in the countrys first mandatory health care program, theres a big push this weekend in California to reach more of the estimated 7 million who were without health care when the program launched last October.
On Friday, a steady stream of potential customers visited locations where they could sign up for coverage through the states health care exchange, Covered California.
Vishal Prasad and his 9-year-old son were among those trying to beat the deadline.
Prasad, a single dad of two elementary-school kids, walked into a Kaiser Permanente enrollment center at Florin Towne Center. The so-called Shop KP store, staffed with health care agents bilingual in Hmong, Spanish and Russian, had some of its busiest days this year on Thursday and Friday.
Prasad, a truck driver, said he was there because his ex-wife recently lost her job, which had provided health care coverage for their children. At the KP store, he discovered his income was low enough to qualify for a Medi-Cal policy, which will allow him to have his own insurance coverage for the first time in five years.
Its the best feeling, knowing that I can get seen by a doctor if I need it and that I can afford it, he said.
Another walk-in, Carina Cervantes, 25, said she had passed the storefront many times on her way to the nearby Walmart, but was always too busy with her classes at California State University, Sacramento, and running a small janitorial company franchise. But Cervantes said shed learned the hard way that going without health care has its financial risks. After a car accident last year, she was taken to an emergency room with minor injuries that resulted in a $3,000 hospital bill.
Cervantes said she tried the Covered California website three or four times but gave up because it either shut down or wouldnt let her choose a plan. At the KP store, she happily discovered her $14,000 annual income entitled her to sign up for a low-income Medi-Cal policy. Those policies cannot be handled at the KP store, but consumers are directed to programs like SacramentoCovered, which handles regular and Medi-Cal plans.
Over on Fruitridge Road, at the sprawling Center for Employment Training campus, Dan Fontenot said he and the other 21 certified enrollment counselors have easily done more than 1,000 applications since they started seeing individuals in October, when Covered California opened for business.
Fontenot, a licensed insurance agent, predicted: Therell be a mad rush this weekend. Word is going to spread.
One of those who wont be lined up is Joseph Dorris, 30, who got onboard in January. A single dad to two young kids, Dorris said his 7-year-old sons medical issues severe asthma and eczema require frequent doctor visits.
Dorris said he signed up for a Blue Shield Silver plan because it offered the doctors and treatment options he needs for his sons conditions. Its cheaper, and about 85 percent of his doctors visits are covered, said Dorris, operations manager for 1Solution, a foreclosure cleanup company. It feels good.
Last year, with an estimated 7 million uninsured Californians, the states exchange set a modest enrollment goal of between 487,000 and 696,000 by the March 31 deadline. As of March 14, the most recent reporting date, Covered California said 1,018,315 Californians had signed up.
As far as hitting its goals, Weve blown them out of the water, said Covered California spokesman Roy Kennedy.
The numbers will doubtless continue climbing with three full days left to enroll. The state has three call centers in Concord, Fresno and Rancho Cordova with nearly 800 staffers, who will be working extended hours through Monday night, despite the state holiday, Cesar Chavez Day.
Its all hands on deck, Kennedy said.
Earlier this year, the states Covered California computer system crashed several times and was down completely for about three days at one point. After several upgrades, Kennedy said the computer system should be able to handle the expected volume this weekend, but could be sluggish at times.
Kennedy urged people to go to walk-in sites that can offer personal, face-to-face help with enrollment questions. If someones not comfortable going online, we highly encourage them to ... go to these events and meet with someone in person.
Although Monday, March 31, is the official deadline for enrolling in 2014 coverage, there is some leeway. State and federal officials announced this week that those with applications in progress before midnight Monday will have until April 15 to complete their paperwork, without facing potential tax penalties for being uninsured.
After Monday, the only health care policies available will be for certain life events (such as marriage, pregnancy, divorce, new baby) or for very limited, short-term policies purchased in the private marketplace. The latter do not qualify for subsidies and will not protect people from potential tax penalties, which start at $95 per person.
The next open enrollment season, for 2015 policies, will be Nov. 15, 2014, through Feb. 15, 2015.
If youre considering a sign-up, the earlier the better. As with last-minute income tax filers, said Kaiser spokesman Edwin Garcia, Given procrastination, Monday could be like the line at the post office on April 15.
Call The Bees Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.