PHOENIX - Nonprofit groups helping Arizonans sign up for health insurance were swamped with last-minute requests Monday as people rushed to meet an enrollment deadline.
The surge came on the final day of this year's open enrollment for private health insurance bought through the federal healthcare.gov marketplace. Many people will qualify for subsidies, and those who ignore the law could face significant tax penalties.
The lead group coordinating enrollment outreach, the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers, said it was seeing a raft of customers who made last-minute appointments. A number of other groups across the state were helping walk-ins including the Urban League and Enroll America.
At Enroll Arizona's Phoenix location, dozens of people were waiting to be helped. They included 56-year-old unemployed construction worker Robert Winkle, who was hoping to get a private plan with a subsidy or qualify for the state's Medicaid plan, known as AHCCCS.
"I could use to get some insurance. I don't got nothing at all, and I'm unemployed," Winkle said. "I tried to get on AHCCCS, but they denied me. But that was before the Obamacare. So I'm giving it a shot this time, see what happens."
Another at the site was Kim Coyle, 62, a state retiree who said her state-provided plan was eating up 2/3 of her state pension check. She said her hunt on the healthcare.gov website found a comparable plan for much less with a subsidy, but she had troubles obtaining the subsidies she qualifies for using the website. So she came to Enroll America.
"I just didn't want to get locked out," she said.
Those seeking insurance this year must create an account on the government's healthcare.gov website by tonight and will have another two weeks to pick a plan under a recently announced extension.
Tara McCollum Plese, spokeswoman for the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers, said the past week has seen surging demand for help.
"I think there was some confusion over the deadline and what that meant," Plese said. "So as people have come to the realization that they need to be enrolled by March 31 of course everybody has been slammed with requests for assistance with helping get on, setting up an account and showing them how they get through the process."
Federal officials set a target of 111,000 for Arizonans would buy health plans on the federal marketplace between Oct. 1, 2013 the Monday, when the first yearly open enrollment period ends. Those who don't sign are locked out until Jan, 1, 2015.
As of March 1, the enrollments were behind projections, with just about 58,000 enrolled. But Plese said she's seen unofficial figure that show the number rose to about 80,000 by mid-March.
According to an estimate by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1.18 million of 6.5 million Arizonans did not have health insurance in 2011. That's 18 percent of the population. A report prepared for Gov. Jan Brewer in 2012 said an estimated 470,000 out of 621,000 eligible people were expected to be getting insurance through the federal marketplace by 2016.
Another 300,000 will gain coverage from the state's expansion of its Medicaid plan for the poor.
On Monday, Plese said groups helping with signups Monday were just trying to get people through the first step so they can finish up in the coming two weeks.
"If people at least get started with the process such as making sure they set up an account online then they are eligible for that extension," she said.