Obamacare deadline extended; shopper gets 24 hour reprieve

Advocate staff photo by John Oubre -- Brenda Christy, seated center, Director of Baton Rouge Christian Academy, is flanked by her employees, left to right, Monica Murphy, Saundra Lollis, Connie Jones, Carla Richardson and Roslyn Baldwin. The women successfully signed up for ObamaCare this month. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by John Oubre -- Brenda Christy, seated center, Director of Baton Rouge Christian Academy, is flanked by her employees, left to right, Monica Murphy, Saundra Lollis, Connie Jones, Carla Richardson and Roslyn Baldwin. The women successfully signed up for ObamaCare this month.

Last-minute shoppers get 24-hour reprieve

Brenda Christy awoke in the wee hours of Sunday morning with a decision to make.

She was having an allergic reaction and her tongue was beginning to swell inside her mouth, making it difficult to breathe. Her bare-bones health insurance covers doctor visits but not hospitalizations.

“It was something I had to think about,” said Christy, of Baton Rouge. “Am I just going to take Benadryl and hope for the best, or am I going to go to the emergency room and just have to deal with the bill when it comes?”

Christy chose the hospital. And Monday she joined nearly 1 million people nationwide logging onto HealthCare.gov in hopes of finding a better health insurance plan before the deadline.

So many people have tried to enroll in these last few days that the Obama administration pushed the deadline back a day, to 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday night. That gives shoppers in Louisiana and 35 other states 24 more hours to find health care coverage that would begin on Jan. 1. The remaining states operate their own online marketplaces, and some of them have also extended their deadlines.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the overhaul, said the grace period was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to allow for any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.

More than 1 million people visited the website over the weekend, and a federal call center received more than 200,000 calls. The Obama administration was careful not to characterize Tuesday as a new deadline or an extension, likening the move instead to the Election Day practice, in which people who are in line when the polls close are still allowed to vote.

The HealthCare.gov website had a glitch-prone debut in October but has gone through extensive improvements to make it more reliable and to increase its capacity. The administration said the system was running well Monday.

The Obama administration is hoping for a surge of year-end enrollments to show that the technical problems were merely a temporary setback. That would also go a long way toward easing concerns that insurance companies won’t be able to sign up enough young, healthy people to keep prices low for everyone.

“Although enrollment is significantly off our original projections, we expect to see an increase in daily enrollments in the short term as people hurry to enroll by the required deadline,” said John Maginnis, vice president of corporate communications for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, in a prepared statement.

Obama said Friday that more than 1 million Americans had enrolled for coverage since Oct. 1. The administration’s estimates call for 3.3 million to sign up by Dec. 31, and the target is 7 million by the end of March. After that, people who fail to buy coverage can face tax penalties.

Christy was the last of nine employees at the Baton Rouge day care center where she works to be shopping for a health care plan. Her current plan is set to expire at the end of the month. Some of her coworkers at Baton Rouge Christian Academy didn’t have coverage at all as recently as last week.

Her employer is Rose Grimes, who said she has 19 employees at two day care centers.

“I’m a retired school teacher, so I have coverage,” Grimes said. “My concern is that because of the small size of workers I have, I could not afford to pay for their health insurance. I felt I had to do something to help them receive it.”

Last month, she attended a public forum hosted by state Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, to help people wade through the often perplexing process of signing up for a health plan under the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

“I felt that people would ultimately be happy with their health care plan once they understood it,” Barrow said. “The purpose of those forums was to connect the community with navigators.”

Navigators are the official name for the people trained to offer free help to consumers, small businesses and their employees looking for appropriate health coverage options through the federal online marketplace.

Grimes, the owner of the day care centers, said the navigators she met through the public forums have been frequenting her two businesses for the past month helping more than a dozen employees find health care plans, a process that typically takes around 90 minutes each time.

“They’ve come in with their computers; they come in the morning and stay past the lunch hour helping people pick the silver, gold or platinum plans,” Grimes said.

Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon met with President Barack Obama last month to discuss how best to roll out the ACA on a state-by-state level.

Donelon, a Republican who said he’s not particularly fond of Obamacare, was in Washington, D.C., in his role as president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

He described his 50-minute meeting with the president as “productive” and “robust”

On Monday, Donelon said he doesn’t anticipate any problems with the administration’s decision to extend the deadline. He said a more significant change happened last month when the Obama administration reversed course and allowed people to keep their existing health plan for a year even if the plan did not meet the minimum standards spelled out in the ACA.

Donelon said the only difficulty he anticipates with this latest change is that it could put stress on insurance company computer systems.

“But I haven’t heard any pushback,” Donelon said. “There’s no sense in complaining because this is being ordained from above. You just have to grin and bear it.”

The government’s original deadline already had been pushed back a week because of the website problems. The extra day will add to the administrative problems that insurance companies face, such as inaccuracies on applications, said industry consultant Robert Laszewski.

“Insurers would like to have two to three weeks to process applications. Now they’re going to have a week, less one more day,” he said.

The president himself signed up for coverage through the government site over the weekend — a purely symbolic move since he will continue to get health care through the military as commander in chief. He chose a less-expensive “bronze” plan.

Mark Ballard of The Advocate Capitol news bureau and Carla K. Johnson of The Associated Press contributed to this report.