Nearly 17,000 Alaskans have signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov during this open enrollment period. That’s already a substantial increase from last year. And Affordable Care Act navigators expect the next three weeks will be even busier as the February 15th enrollment deadline approaches.
Micah Williams is sitting in front of a computer at the Loussac Library in Anchorage, dutifully checking off boxes for his healthcare.gov application.
Williams is 27 and uninsured. He thought about signing up for health insurance last year, but he decided to wait. He didn’t think he would qualify for much of a subsidy and he kept hearing how bad the website was. On this afternoon, healthcare.gov is working, but it is not moving quickly. The site is overloaded because it’s January 15th, the deadline for coverage that starts February 1st.
Joan Fisher is looking over William’s shoulder.
“That’s called the circle of death. Last year, I looked at that a lot.”
Fisher is an Affordable Care Act navigator with the United Way of Anchorage. She’s walking Williams through his application and helping him research his different plan options.
Williams works at Title Wave Books and makes $10.50 an hour. He also pays a lot in student loans each month, so his income qualifies him for a big subsidy. He can pick a plan with a $250 deductible with zero premium cost. Williams is impressed:
“That’s actually pretty good. This is a lot better than I thought it was going to end up being.”
Fisher has been a navigator since the first open enrollment period that began in the fall of 2013. She says those six months were a frenzy, with a crush of people who wanted to sign up and a website that barely functioned – at least at first. This time around, she describes the enrollment process as more calm, but steady. Fisher says she’s helping a lot of people like Williams, who decided to put it off a year:
“I’ve seen a lot of people who just said I didn’t want to do it last year. And a lot of it was related to the website but a lot of it was that they just didn’t understand and thought it’s only going to cost me $95 if I don’t sign up so I’m not going to bother with it.”
The penalty for 2014 taxes is $95 or 1% of income, whichever is greater. That expense is motivating a lot of people Cherise Fowler sees as the Outreach and Enrollment Coordinator with the Alaska Primary Care Association. Fowler has traveled to Barrow, Bethel and Fairbanks to get the word out about the enrollment period.
“I think people are warming up to the idea of the Affordable Care Act and slowly but surely, one person at a time is coming to understand the benefits that it has and how it can positively impact their life.”
Fowler says people love to procrastinate when it comes to signing up for health insurance. She says at the end of the last enrollment period, she was pulling all nighters. And she expects the same as the February 15th deadline approaches:
“I imagine it will be very busy and days will be blurred together of just trying to help as many Alaskans as we can access the marketplace and get their coverage before the deadline closes.”
Micah Williams won’t have to worry about the deadline. Now he’s just waiting for his insurance card to arrive in the mail. And he says he’ll be glad to know he has health coverage in case he needs it:
“I’m pretty healthy. I wouldn’t need on average more than a yearly visit, but it’s comforting to know I have some way to stay healthy if something bad were to happen.”
Williams is so pleased with his healthcare.gov experience, he’s trying to get the word out to his friends and coworkers- hoping they’ll sign up for health insurance too. In Anchorage, I’m AF.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.