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After bumpy health care exchange launch, Maine groups praise smoother sign-up session

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AUGUSTA, Maine — With fewer glitches plaguing the federally run health exchange website, people helping to enroll Maine residents in insurance plans say the process is going more smoothly this time around, and they're hopeful they will make strides in the next three months in covering the tens of thousands of people in the state who remain uninsured.

Demand for appointments appears to be high. And the first few days of open enrollment have gone by with few major issues, unlike last year when widespread technical problems with the national Healthcare.gov website caused headaches and sign-up delays for weeks, those assisting enrollees across Maine said.

As an outreach and enrollment specialist with Penobscot Community Health Center, Erin Munson has helped people sign up for plans in Old Town. She said she's hearing mostly from those looking to buy coverage on the exchange for the first time.

"They are hearing more positive feedback about the program, and they are interested in enrolling this year," Munson said.

With the help of St. Joseph's Hospital in Bangor, Munson said she and other assisters are reaching out to thousands of people in the area who they've identified as uninsured and are trying to show them what they can gain by getting covered.

President Barack Obama's administration said that about 100,000 people — including new and returning customers — submitted applications for 2015 coverage on the exchange as of Saturday, the first day of open enrollment. About 7 million people are signed up via the federal website, which is serving Maine and 36 other states. The administration expects to grow that by 2 million more or so by the time open enrollment ends on Feb. 15.

Emily Brostek, executive director of Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said some people who signed up last time were having problems logging into the system because they either forgot or lost their passwords. But overall, it has been a "completely different experience than last year" when assisters with her organization were swamped with frustrated callers who couldn't navigate the system on their own, Brostek said.

"Once people are in the website, it's working really well," she said.

In the short three-month period, health care assisters are not only are not tasked with signing up new customers, but re-enrolling people who bought coverage last time, like Sherri Tripp, who owns a surf shop with her husband in Old Orchard Beach.

Before her family signed up for a silver plan during the last open-enrollment session, Tripp said they went without insurance for years because they couldn't afford to pay the steep monthly premium.

Now, she pays about $300 a month to cover herself, her husband and their 20-year-old son, she said. Having coverage has meant the 49-year-old has been able to do things she's been putting off for years, like have a breast cancer screening, Tripp said.

Now she sees having health insurance as a no-brainer, she said.

"You have to have car insurance, why wouldn't you have health insurance?"


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