Problems with the federally run website, healthcare.gov, have dragged down enrollment in the exchanges, including here in Wisconsin.
The government reported Wednesday that fewer than 27,000 Americans enrolled in private insurance plans on the new federal healthcare exchange during October.
The number is substantially short of President Obama’s target of a half-million.
Thousands of Wisconsin people must enroll within the next month because they’re going to lose their existing coverage in January.
Thirty-six states are using the troubled website, including Wisconsin, because they did not create their own.
Problems surfaced during an enrollment fair this week in Milwaukee.
For five hours, people streamed in and out of the Wisconsin Jobs Now office. They came looking for health insurance.
Just inside the door, attendees had to answer questions such as, do they work, how much money do they make, do they have dependents?
The answers determined whether they’re eligible for Medicaid, called BadgerCare in Wisconsin, or if they belong in the new healthcare marketplace.
As people waited to meet with counselors, they chatted with reps from health insurance companies and snacked on popcorn.
Dameon and Althea Peters took advantage of free blood pressure checks.
They both work, but they say the health insurance their jobs offer is too expensive.
“It’s like $400 and something dollars a month, but it’s $200 a pay period. And mine is $500 a month, as far as the premiums, and then as far as the deductible, it’s like $5000 and that’s for one person,” said Dameon and Althea.
They need coverage, especially because Althea has high blood pressure.
In a quiet office nearby, Maureen Dunn is helping 62-year-old Dennis Love apply for coverage in the new federal exchange.
Dunn is a Certified Assistance Counselor with the group Wisconsin Jobs Now.
“So normally we would be doing this on the healthcare.gov website, but it just went down. So what we’re going to do is the phone application process instead. So I’m just going to call in and have you speak to a counselor, but I just want to ask you a few questions beforehand,” Dunn says.
Love answers that he works as an executive chef at a hotel but hasn’t had health insurance for at least 10 years. Dunn then dials the 1-800 number and it also frustrates. The operator asks what state Dunn is calling from. She answers Wisconsin several times, but it doesn’t compute.
Once the location is finally settled, the operator records Love’s address, marital status, and Social Security number. Then, the obvious question.
“Do you need health coverage?” asks the operator.
“Yes I do,” Love responds.
The series of questions and answers takes about a half hour, and culminates with legalese about being truthful and appealing results.
While Love waits for confirmation, he says he’s had to rely on free clinics and one time last year, the emergency room, for medical care.
“I had a heavy feeling in my chest and they thought I was having a heart attack, but I had to stay in the hospital 14 days,” Love says.
He says he can't pay the bill.
“It was big. I want to say around $14,000-$15,000."
The operator comes back and tells Love his application is complete, and he’ll get his results about what benefits he’s eligible for, in the mail. I ask Love how he feels after his application is submitted.
“I hope it goes through, because I need insurance,” he says.
Back out at the enrollment fair, Liz says she has insurance through work, but her position at UW-Madison ends next month.
“I know I don’t qualify for BadgerCare or anything like that but I’m just interested in what the options are with the Affordable Care Act,” Liz says.
She needs insurance to support herself and her family.
“I have a 3-year-old daughter. She has hydrocephalous and was born three months prematurely. So she still has disabilities and things she has to deal with. So I’m just trying to make sure that she does not lack in coverage. Hopefully myself, too, but her primarily,” Liz says.
Liz is waiting for her name to be called to meet with a counselor.
While she waits, she has a bit of good luck. There’s a raffle for a free, one-year pass to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee – and Liz wins it.
People like her have until December 15 to sign up for a healthcare plan on the exchange and pay a premium in order for insurance to kick in come January.