Health & Medicine

Sunday is the last day for open enrollment through Covered California

Samuel Butler inquires at the Covered California booth during a neighborhood event in 2013.
Samuel Butler inquires at the Covered California booth during a neighborhood event in 2013. lsterling@sacbee.com

Covered California is counting on the human penchant for procrastination to add tens of thousands of new enrollees to the ranks of residents who buy health insurance through the virtual marketplace. The state administrator of the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, will close its second yearly period of open enrollment Sunday at midnight.

Covered California is still about 200,000 people short of its goal of adding half a million new enrollees to the 1 million-plus who signed up in the first enrollment period last year. Officials say they’re hoping to make up some of that difference this weekend.

“Last year as well there was a huge rush of people coming through the door at the very last minute,” said Covered California spokesman Dana Howard. “A lot of folks are going to wait until Feb. 15. That’s just human nature.”

To prepare, he said, the Covered California website has been beefed up, offices are fully staffed, and hundreds of enrollment events are planned throughout the state on Saturday and Sunday. In Sacramento County, for example, the uninsured can sign up in the Arden Fair shopping mall, at the annual Sweet Potato Festival in Meadowview and at dozens of other locations.

Last year’s crush to enroll highlighted shortcomings, including long wait times for consumers who called the health exchange or struggled to use its overwhelmed website. It also pointed to a need for more brick-and-mortar locations where people could seek one-on-one help.

Covered California now has more than 500 storefronts statewide, many in well-trafficked locations such as shopping malls, he said. There are also 13,000 insurance agents around the state who can help people obtain health insurance through the exchange.

“We’ve made a huge investment in what we call the ground game – in making sure consumers can have someone they can talk to in person rather than just telling them to go to the website and enroll,” Howard said.

Persuading people to get insured last year was relatively easy, officials and health care advocates acknowledged. Those who had been waiting for easy and affordable health insurance were ready to enroll. Those who didn’t are harder to convince, they said.

“The remaining population that’s left is that much harder to enroll,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of the Sacramento-based consumer group Health Access California. “The people who were eager to get coverage signed up in year one. People who are less connected and less educated about their options – those are the folks that are left.”

Covered California embarked on a marketing blitz to convince fence sitters it was time to enroll. Ads in a variety of languages appeared on billboards, radio and television. Young people were a target audience. So were Latinos and African Americans, who were under-represented as a proportion of enrollees last year.

“There’s a full website in Spanish that seems to be working this year,” Wright noted. (www.coveredca.com/espanol/) The multilingual ads are necessary in a state with a huge ethnic diversity, he said. There are applications online in a dozen languages including Arabic, Farsi and Tagalog. “You can’t not do this stuff when you’re trying to enroll people in California,” he said.

Wright said he doubts 200,000 people are going to enroll as Sunday approaches, but “the deadline creates an urgency for people to close the deal. There’s an expectation that there will be a spike in the end that will get us closer to that goal.”

Would-be enrollees can shop and sign up for health plans on Covered California’s website, www.coveredca.com. The group has a searchable roster of storefront locations and enrollment events – many in conjunction with community groups.

Pleshette Robertson is executive director of one of those groups – the Sac Cultural Hub Media Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting African American culture and entertainment. It has a sign-up table near the food court at Arden Fair mall and a storefront location on 21st Street in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood.

The group hosted a sign-up event at the Oak Park Community Center in November during the kickoff of open enrollment. On Saturday it will have a table staffed with enrollment counselors at the popular annual Sweet Potato Festival at the Sam and Bonnie Pannell Community Center on Meadowview Road starting at 10 a.m. (www.svsncnw.org/#!sweet-potato-festival/ciz4)

Business has picked up in the last couple of weeks, with the Arden Fair location especially busy, as people realize the deadline is approaching, Robertson said.

“We’ve been seeing a surge of more people coming in,” she said.

Covered California officials are trying to convince the unenrolled that Obamacare’s carrot-and-stick approach makes signing up a no-brainer. This is the first year people without insurance will have to pay tax penalties, which are set to increase greatly next year.

For the 2014 tax year, the penalty is $95, or 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater. In 2015, that will zoom to $325 or 2 percent of a family’s income, with a limit of $975.

Enrolling for health insurance lets people avoid the fine and also avoid the risk of having to pay huge medical bills in the event of injury or illness. Tax credits can dramatically offset the cost of the insurance.

Howard gave this example: A Sacramento couple, ages 40 and 38, who file joint taxes and have an adjusted gross income of $30,000 a year would pay $549 a month for a silver health insurance plan through the exchange, coverage that Howard called “really solid.” But tax credits would bring the premium down to $131 a month – or $1,572 a year.

Or they could pay a tax penalty of $600 – 2 percent of their income in 2015 – and still have no health insurance and risk losing everything if they get in an accident or become seriously ill.

“We hear (people) just saying, ‘I’ll pay the penalty’” because it’s cheaper, he said. “Would it be that much cheaper for you? And what happens to people who take the roll of the dice?”

Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.

4 days

left to enroll in a health insurance plan through Covered California for 2015 before the 11:59 p.m. Sunday deadline. Details on how to enroll, Page AX

Learn more

Consumers can shop for health plans through Covered California before the 11:59 p.m. Sunday deadline and enroll at coveredca.com. The website also has search tools to find insurance agents, enrollment events and storefront locations with trained counselors. To get help by phone, call 800-300-1506.

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