MONROE COUNTY -- Although snags are still occurring, it has become easier for Florida Keys residents to sign up for a plan on the federally-run healthcare insurance exchange, according to a Key West-based enrollment counselor.
"I'd say when I started, the website was having a lot of glitches and a lot of errors," said counselor Carlos Gutierrez of Community Health of South Florida, who began working out of the Womankind office on Nov. 12. "We have gotten to a point now where there is much less frequency of errors. We still get them, but we are able to work through them. Right now I am able to get people enrolled typically within an hour."
As of Dec. 12, Gutierrez said he had assisted approximately 50 people this month in signing up for insurance on the exchange, which is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. From his start date through the remainder of November, he helped 35 people sign up.
Individuals have until next Monday, Dec. 23, to purchase a policy if they wish to be insured in January. Community Health counselors Gutierrez, in the Lower Keys, and Leslie Calero, in the Upper and Middle Keys, are paid through a federal grant to assist with the process. So is Key West-based Vicki Boguszewski of the Rural Health Network of Monroe County. Shoppers can also buy insurance on their own at the healthcare.gov website.
Beginning next year, the ACA will mandate that everyone have health insurance. Those who don't ante up are subject to a $95 fine. Many low and middle income individuals who don't receive insurance through employers qualify for subsidies on the exchange.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services does not have county-level data on the number of people who have purchase policies through the marketplace. But the increases noted by Gutierrez, though anecdotal, reflect improvements in the healthcare.gov site, which had a rash of problems after it went live on Oct. 1. The political maelstrom that followed sent President Obama's approval rating plummeting. The HHS has since spent $47 million fixing the site, according to CNN.
Nationwide, enrollment is still tracking well behind the Obama Administration's early estimates, but it's on the upswing. Just less than 365,000 Americans had purchased health insurance through the exchange as of Nov. 30. Enrollment in November was more than quadruple what it was in October.
With 17,900 enrollees as of Nov. 30, Florida led the way among the 36 states that have chosen to have the HHS run their exchange. Of the 14 states and the District of Columbia that are running their own exchanges, California led the way with 107,000 enrollees.
Key West hair salon owner Darryl Goddard, 57, who purchased insurance last month with the assistance of Gutierrez, said it took patience to get through marketplace, but it was worth it.
"The savings are incredible," he said.
Another of Gutierrez's clients, semi-retired printer Wayne Sepanik, 63, is also pleased. After subsidies, his policy is costing $183 per month. It features a $1,500 deductible, $30 co-pays for primary care and maximum out-of-pocket expenses of $4,250. Sepanik said it's the first time he has had insurance in a decade.