Clocking ticking for Mainers who want to sign up for coverage on health care exchange

Time is running out for Maine residents who want to sign up for coverage on the health care exchange.

Sunday is the last day to buy subsidized private insurance on through President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, the Affordable Care Act.

While the open enrollment period has gone more smoothly than last year when the federally run website was plagued with glitches, some Mainers ran into a different problem this time around: the weather.

Several snowstorms over the last couple of weeks have forced some residents to push back appointments, making things slightly hectic for assisters and those trying to get help ahead of the deadline, said Cheryl Leonard, a navigator with the Kennebec Community Action Program in Waterville.

"That has been a little bit of a challenge," she said.

With another foot of snow expected this weekend, Leonard said Friday that she's been getting calls from people with appointments scheduled who are worried about whether she will still be able to meet with them. She's encouraging them to get their applications started now and hopes to be able to keep as many appointments as possible, she said.

Federal officials say that more than 66,000 residents already have enrolled since Nov. 15, which advocates say is encouraging. Last year, about 44,000 people signed up, nearly doubling the target set by the federal government.

"I'm not surprised we're seeing really robust numbers again," said Emily Brostek, executive director of Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care. "It really shows that Maine people are looking for affordable health coverage."

But as the numbers of enrollees rise, so do the penalties that people will have to pay if they don't have insurance.

Those who didn't have coverage last year will be charged either 1 percent of their household's adjusted gross income or $95, whichever is greater. The penalty for not buying insurance increases to 2 percent of income or $325 this year, unless that person qualifies for an exemption.

Navigators, like Leonard, will be working through the weekend across Maine to help residents with the sign-up process. She urges those who still are thinking about signing up to not wait until the last minute because the wait time for the federal help line may be long.

Since her health coverage expired last month, Erin Mejia said she's been concerned about how she'd pay for care if something happened to her or her 1-year-old daughter. But her worries have been put to rest since she signed up for a Maine Community Health Options silver plan this week, the 29-year-old Augusta resident said.

"I'm very relieved that on March 1 we are going to be covered again," she said.


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