LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Insurance Department workers and health insurance guides are preparing for a possible surge of enrollment in the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace on Monday, the final day to enroll for coverage effective this year.
The enrollment deadline for coverage that begins May 1 is 10:59 p.m. CDT on Monday. People who have begun but have not been able to complete the enrollment process by that time will be allowed extra time to obtain coverage, the Obama administration has said — but they have to take action no later than Monday.
“Consumers that miss that deadline will have to wait until November, so it’s very important if a consumer is seeking coverage that they begin that process,” said state Insurance Department spokeswoman Heather Haywood.
The next open enrollment period is scheduled to start Nov. 15 and run through Feb. 15 of next year. The federal Affordable Care Act requires nearly everyone to have health insurance or be subject to a fine.
There is no enrollment deadline, however, for the so-called private option, Arkansas’ alternative to state Medicaid expansion that uses federal Medicaid money to provide private insurance to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
According to a calendar on the Insurance Department’s Arkansas Health Connector website, marketplace enrollment events are scheduled for Sunday in Little Rock and for Monday in Augusta, Fayetteville, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Piggott, Russellville and Walnut Ridge.
Arkansans can go directly to the federal marketplace site, healthcare.gov, to enroll or they can visit the Arkansas Health Connector Site and click on “enrollment assistance” for the contact information of guides, agents and brokers in their county who can assist them.
Help will be available by phone in Arkansas at (855) 283-3483 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday. The federal call center is available 24 hours a day, every day, at (800) 318-2596.
Haywood said the volume of calls received at the Arkansas Health Connector’s call center has been growing as the deadline nears.
“Last week we logged 475 calls,” she said Friday afternoon. “This week — and it’s as of just five minutes ago — we’ve have 608 calls, and we anticipate we’ll probably receive 50 or 60 more calls before the end of the day.”
Haywood also said that according to updates the Insurance Department has received from the federal government, visits to healthcare.gov jumped from 1.2 million on Tuesday to 1.5 million on Wednesday, and calls to the federal call center jumped from 390,000 on Tuesday to 490,000 on Wednesday.
Could a surge in traffic cause a repeat of the technical issues that plagued healthcare.gov when it launched last fall? It shouldn’t, according to guide Kendra Johnson of Little Rock.
“The latest information that we got today is that they have beefed up the website so it will support about 50 percent more traffic, and they have added about 14,000 more customer service representatives to handle some of the applications that may be coming in by phone, so we can only be optimistic,” said Johnson, who is employed as a guide through Better Community Development, a Little Rock-based organization that provides services to low-income people.
“We hope that this latest fix is really a fix, but we’re prepared to have paper applications because it just has to be postmarked” by the deadline, she said.
Johnson, who is helping to organize enrollment events at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock on Sunday and at First Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock on Monday, said enrollment typically takes between 30 minutes and an hour and a half, depending on the number of people in the consumer’s household.
Insurance officials told a legislative panel Thursday that 33,569 Arkansans have enrolled in private insurance plans through the marketplace outside of the private option, far short of the 250,000 target. Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said the initial technical problems with healthcare.gov slowed the process, but he expects the state to reach the target eventually.
Guides such as Johnson have been a large part of the effort to enroll Arkansans in the marketplace and the private option. According to the Insurance Department, in-person assisters — which also include insurance agents and brokers, certified application counselors and federal navigators — had helped 80,914 people determine their eligibility and/or enroll by March 7.
Those helpers will not be around for the marketplace’s next open enrollment period, however. The state Legislature this year inserted a provision into a budget bill that bans the state from spending any state or federal money on in-person assisters or on promotion of the marketplace and the private option in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“I think having no air cover and no ground cover will impact it,” said Cynthia Crone, director of the Insurance Department’s Health Benefits Exchange Partnership Division.
Crone said enrollment in the marketplace could reach 50,000 for the enrollment period that ends Monday, but “that’s a long way from where we need to be.”
But Crone noted that about 20 percent of the people who have enrolled in the marketplace outside of the private option did so with the help of insurance agents and brokers, who will continue to operate on their own.
Bradford said entities such as churches, libraries and nonprofit organizations likely will volunteer to help educate people about their insurance options.
“It’s a service that’s needed, so there will be people out there that are doing their best to help people secure insurance coverage,” he said.