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Maine groups make final push to sign up residents on the health insurance exchange

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Community health centers and navigators across Maine were flooded with calls and in-person requests for help Monday as last-minute health insurance shoppers sought coverage before the end of federal health care law's six-month enrollment period.

Advocates saw a surge of demand from those who want to buy health insurance and avoid the fines they could face under the Affordable Care Act if they don't have coverage by April 1.

Cheri-Ann Parris, a certified application counselor who was holding walk-in hours Monday at Community Concepts in Lewiston, said was confident she and her two colleagues will be able to provide help to all those who seek it, but it will be a challenge.

"It has been really hectic and that's totally fine, that's why we're here," she said. "We're really going full throttle toward the end of today just to get everyone that we can enrolled."

But the last-minute enrollment push wasn't without its glitches. The healthcare.gov website, which was plagued with problems when enrollment opened in October, was out of service for nearly four hours as technicians patched a software bug early Monday. Later in the day, a glitch temporarily kept new applicants from signing up.

Assisters in Maine said that caused some delays, but they were able to get people signed up with some persistence.

"We had a navigator who had three laptops going at the same time and was bound to get one of them to work," said Karen Turgeon, who's overseeing the navigator program at the Opportunity Alliance in Portland.

Theresa Grainger, who sought help there Monday, said she had hoped to leave with insurance coverage but was happy to at least get the application process started. The 51-year-old Limington resident said she's been exploring coverage her options on her own since leaving her full-time job at Walmart earlier this month, but that the deadline crept up on her.

"I was out looking for another career ... still working my part-time job and trying to make a decision," she said. "Time goes by really fast."

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Maine Community Health Options are the two insurers offering coverage on the exchange in Maine, one of the 36 states that opted to allow the federal government to run its exchange.

Maine is among the top-performing states in the country in enrollment, with more than 25,400 residents having picked health insurance plans by March 1, surpassing the target of 23,000 set by President Barack Obama's administration for the entire enrollment period.

Jake Grindle, health services navigator for Western Maine Community Action, attributed the state's success to the tight-knit health centers and nonprofit organizations that have been working furiously together on outreach, education and enrollment.

WMCA started running out of appointment slots over the last week but has been coordinating with the health centers and other organizations that have extra staff to ensure that people can find help, Grindle said.

Advocates urged residents still seeking coverage to begin enrollment; if they start by midnight and don't finish, they will be given extra time to complete the signup.

That means that the work for navigators won't end at midnight. Streubel said he expects they'll continue booking appointments through at least April 10 to help people finish their applications.

"The important thing is that people get in line," said Emily Brostek, consumer assistance program manager at Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care.

Health care advocates thought the younger crowd would wait until the last minute to sign up, potentially boosting Maine's enrollment figures in the 18-to-24 age bracket, which was at 19 percent compared to 39 percent for the 55-to-64 age bracket in March.

But Bjorn Streubel, a navigator with Waldo Community Action Partners, which is processing about eight to 10 applications a day, said applicants under age 30 have been "nonexistent" at his agency.


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