Marketplace assistance available before deadline
by Anna Oakes
The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Tuesday that 4 million Americans have signed up for health insurance plans through federal- and state-based marketplaces since Oct. 1, when the open enrollment period began.
The Obama administration's goal is to enroll 7 million by the end of this first enrollment period. The next open enrollment period is proposed to begin Nov. 15, 2014, and end Jan. 15, 2015.
High Country Community Health, the federally qualified health center serving Watauga and Avery counties, received funding to hire several outreach and eligibility specialists to help the public understand the Affordable Care Act and enroll in plans.
Those who enroll and make their first premium payment by midnight on March 15 are eligible for coverage beginning April 1; anyone who enrolls between March 16 and March 31 will receive coverage beginning May 1, said Eric Schneider, a HCCH outreach and eligibility specialist.
Schneider said HCCH specialists have provided direct enrollment assistance to between 300 and 400 people in Watauga and Avery counties during the past couple of months. Interest has slowed since the rush that occurred in December, he said, but "we're expecting a really big push in March ... (and there is) likely to be a huge push by the 18-to-34 age set."
"We don't know what it's going to be like, but we're doing everything we can to make sure, if that rush does come, that we're overprepared and not underprepared," Schneider said.
He said HCCH specialists have targeted areas such as Watauga Medical Center, Appalachian State University, the Harrill Senior Center and local businesses.
Several opportunities for assistance are available by appointment and for walk-ins in the coming weeks.
From 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 5, and Friday, March 21, HCCH will be joined by ACA Navigators from Legal Aid of North Carolina. Walk-ins and pre-scheduled appointments will be accepted during those hours. Call (855) 733-3711 or (828) 773-7297 to make appointments. HCCH is located at the Watauga County Health Department at 126 Poplar Grove Connector in Boone.
Students at Appalachian State can receive assistance on campus on Wednesday, March 5, and Wednesday, March 19. Call Timmy Stiling at (828) 263-3117 for details.
Four group enrollment sessions will take place at the Watauga Public Library from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, March 8, 22 and 29, and at 10 a.m. on Friday, March 14. A limited number of seats are available; call (828) 264-8784, ext. 2, to reserve a seat.
For appointments outside of these dates and hours, contact Schneider in Watauga at (828) 773-7297 and Dory Trimble in Avery at (828) 772-2471.
Federal subsidies to purchase insurance through the marketplace are not available to people who are eligible for affordable coverage offered through an employer or a spouse's plan or to those who fall in the "Medicaid gap" -- people with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty line, but not eligible for Medicaid. In North Carolina, only low-income children, mothers, seniors and the disabled can receive Medicaid benefits.
The ACA provides exemptions to the individual mandate's tax penalty for those who cannot afford health insurance -- but they must apply for the exemption before March 31, Schneider said.
The HCCH outreach and enrollment team can assist local residents in applying for the exemption.