October 2, 2013

Few Mainers sign up for insurance in person, but interest is high

Tuesday, the first day of the Affordable Care Act, was a key test to see if people will enroll.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Only a few people showed up in person at Portland Community Health Center on Tuesday to inquire about signing up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, the first day people could enroll for subsidized benefits.

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Emily Brostek, left, assists Jesse Miller of Portland to learni about health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday October 1, 2013. Brostek works at the Consumers for Affordable Health Care offices in Augusta.

Andy Molloy / Staff Photographer

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Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer With the health insurance marketplace open for business, an attendent at an informational event at Bell Buoy Park in Portland on Tuesday, October 1, 2013, holds a graphic explaining how the new marketplace works.

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But Libby Cummings’ phone rang steadily throughout the afternoon, from about two dozen people interested in setting up appointments to sign up for insurance.

“I got so many phone calls today,” said Cummings, an outreach specialist at the center.

The health center was one of several places in the Portland area where people could sign up in person, but many were also examining plans online or calling the toll-free number. The New York Times reported that www.healthcare.gov was overwhelmed with millions of people looking at the site, causing frequent web site crashes, especially on Tuesday morning. The Press Herald tested the site in the morning, and an error message appeared until about 10:45 a.m., when the enrollment page came up.

Tuesday was a key test run to enroll the uninsured, often the self-employed or part-time workers who don’t have insurance through their employer. While the federal government also shut down on Tuesday, the ACA’s funding was protected, and people could still sign up.

Consumers have through March 31 to sign up for insurance for 2014 coverage.

In Augusta, Jesse Miller, 36, looked over various plans at Consumers for Affordable Health Care offices, a health advocacy group. While the web site was down and he couldn’t sign up, Miller said he plans to enroll soon on the marketplace because he can’t get affordable insurance through his employers. “I’ve gone without insurance for the past six years,” said Miller, a part-time faculty member at various colleges in Maine teaching Englih and fiction. But Miller, who earns about $30,000 per year, said while he used to have an “invincible” approach, he doesn’t feel that way now that age 40 is approaching. “The world is a giant banana peel you can slip on, and who knows what can happen,” Miller said.

He said depending on what plan he chose, he would pay about $200 per month, which he can afford.

For the Opportunity Alliance, which is also helping with the effort to enroll people on the marketplace, director Karen Turgeon said they are not prepared right now to help people who walk in off the street to sign up, and several did so on Tuesday after the Alliance was listed in a Press Herald story as one of several organizations named in the www.enroll207.com web site that assists people with enrollment. The enroll207 web site is operated by the Maine Health Access Foundation, which is spending about $500,000 in an effort to help raise awareness of the ACA.

Turgeon said people can still call for an in-person appointment, and the non-profit group may in the coming months be able to take walk-ins.

Meanwhile, Brian Delaney, a contractor working for the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, which is also one of the groups helping people enroll, said they fielded about six phone calls and had two inquiries forwarded to them through the web site.

“It’s prime lobster season, so they weren’t too interested in insurance (Tuesday),” Delaney said.

Kevin Lewis, president of Maine Community Health Options, one of two insurance providers offering plans on the marketplace, said early indications are showing strong interest.

“We were bustling today,” Lewis said. “It was very encouraging with the level of demand and interest.”

While many would go through www.healthcare.gov to enroll, consumers could also opt to go to the MCHO web site and go through most of the process before finalizing enrollment at the federal web site.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer With the health insurance marketplace open for business, Outreach Specialist Libby Cummings, at Portland Community Health Center, answers questions on the phone about the new system on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.

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Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer With the health insurance marketplace open for business, outreach specialist Christian Bisimwa (R) of the Portland Community Health Center, trains volunteer Cyndie Smith of Westbrook to deal with inquiries from the public about the new health insurance system on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.


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