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Kansas consumers, health care counselors struggle with balky website as federal deadline looms

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Consumers and health care counselors struggled through problems with the federal government's online health insurance marketplace amid a crush of late requests for help in meeting Monday's deadline to sign up for coverage.

The Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, a nonprofit group that trained most of the state's 170 or so health care counselors, or navigators, reported that their schedules were packed with appointments ahead of the deadline. The federal health care overhaul, championed by President Barack Obama, requires most Americans to have health coverage or pay a tax penalty.

But technical problems with the federal marketplace's websites were frustrating consumers and navigators alike. HealthCare.gov was out of service for nearly four hours Monday morning, and another problem later temporarily kept new applicants from signing up.

Navigators for the Shawnee County Health Agency in Topeka helped consumers at the public library, but made follow-up appointments when they couldn't use the website Monday. Later, they could access the website, but reported that it was running slowly.

Tamika Terry, a 39-year-old Topeka resident, found the problems annoying. She began working for the U.S. Postal Service in September but hasn't yet qualified for federal benefits and was looking for coverage to tide her over.

She said if workers tried to apply during their lunch breaks, "They'd really be out of luck."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had projected that 53,000 Kansas residents would enroll in coverage through the marketplace by the end of March. It said about 29,000 had done so by the end of February. In Kansas, navigators were swamped, said Katrina McGivern, spokeswoman for the Association for the Medically Underserved.

"They've booked their appointment schedules as tight as they can get them," she said.

Millions of people nationwide also were potentially eligible for extensions, including those who began enrolling by the deadline but weren't able to finish.

PHOTO: Julie Koenig, left, a health care application counselor for the Shawnee County, Kan., Health Agency, works with Tecia Ramos, center, and her son, Andrew, right, during an appointment, Monday, March 31, 2014, at the public library in Topeka, Kan. The appointment was ahead of the deadline for Americans to enroll in coverage under the federal health care overhaul. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Julie Koenig, left, a health care application counselor for the Shawnee County, Kan., Health Agency, works with Tecia Ramos, center, and her son, Andrew, right, during an appointment, Monday, March 31, 2014, at the public library in Topeka, Kan. The appointment was ahead of the deadline for Americans to enroll in coverage under the federal health care overhaul. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature still looked for ways to resist the Democratic president's signature domestic policy. Last week, the House passed a bill to bring Kansas into a compact of states hoping for congressional approval for a blanket exemption from federal health care laws.

A Senate committee planned to take up the measure Tuesday. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican and a vocal supporter of the bill, said supporters' goal is for the compact bill to clear the Legislature this week.

The proposal for a compact of states seeking to avoid the federal law relies on an obscure provision in the U.S. Constitution that requires congressional approval for such multistate agreements. It doesn't give the president a role, making the idea attractive for some critics of the health care overhaul. The Houston, Texas group pushing the idea says eight other states have passed similar laws, including Missouri and Texas.

Also, earlier this month, the Senate approved a measure to require health care navigators to register with the attorney general's office by July 2015, pay a $100 annual fee, submit their fingerprints and undergo background checks. Kansas has about 170 navigators.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislative leaders view the federal health care law as burdensome and likely to harm the economy. Their opposition kept Kansas from setting up its own online marketplace or partnering with the federal government, and GOP officials said the rocky rollout of the federal website this fall confirmed their wariness.

Republicans also have prevented the state from expanding its Medicaid program to cover thousands of people who don't qualify for subsidies to buy private insurance.

"The state isn't making it easy to get insurance," said Andrew Ramos, a 19-year-old Topeka resident.

Ramos and his mother, Tecia, 47, had an appointment with a health insurance counselor Monday. His father, Salvador, is a self-employed jeweler who hasn't been able to buy health insurance because he's been in remission from cancer for two decades. Tecia Ramos said she tried to enroll for coverage in October and December but was told each time that the family didn't qualify for subsidies. She was going to try again.

"Every time I try, the website's down," she said.


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