Alaskans flock to sign up for health coverage

Tegan Hanlon

At the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center on Monday, employees repeated one word to the Alaskans who aimed to beat the 8 p.m. Affordable Care Act deadline and enroll in health insurance: patience.

It was patience that was needed when an overrun sent users to an online waiting room or when the website stopped taking applications altogether or when emails confirming created accounts came late.

Still, the federally run website functioned better than it did when rolled out Oct. 1. A steady flow of people signed up for health insurance at the Midtown health clinic on the day that open enrollment officially closed, said Cassandra Maurer, marketing and development coordinator at the clinic.

"It has been so hectic," she said.

Fifty-two-year-old Bill Robinson popped in briefly. He works nights as a janitor and typically sleeps during the day. Robinson said he wasn't clear on the deadline until his ex-wife called to remind him Monday afternoon. He got on the bus and headed to the clinic.

Robinson's employer doesn't offer insurance and he said he's "reasonably healthy" but "I'm getting a little older now and I need it in case something happens." He makes about $23,700 a year, pinning him as a candidate for a federal subsidy, or discounted insurance.

But, when he walked up to the enrollment center, Samantha Longacre, a certified application counselor, told him the website was slow. He should still try. He could wait at the clinic or wait at home, she said. Robinson took her card and left for the Mountain View Branch Library.

"Just try to sign up" was another repeated push. While March 31 marked the last day to enroll in health insurance, federal officials have enumerated a handful of exemptions that qualify a person for "special enrollment periods."

Consumers can sign up late if they faced enrollment or system errors. There's wiggle-room if a person has unresolved case work or faced a natural disaster or medical emergency, said a release from the Department of Health and Human Services last week.

Health officials have also defined "qualifying events" that allow people to sign up between enrollment windows. These are events like marriage, divorce and significant cost or coverage change.

So agencies that have either received federal funding to help people enroll, like the United Way, or a brokerage launched to assist, like Enroll Alaska, will be sticking around.

Mark Makris said Monday, while he waited for an overdue email from the health insurance marketplace, that he'd likely be trying to sign up again Tuesday. The 28-year-old has worked as a line cook at the Village Inn for 10 years. He said he has never had insurance. "I'm just looking to avoid the fee," Makris said.

Those who do not sign up for health insurance may have to pay a financial penalty when filing taxes next year. At first, it's either 1 percent of a household's annual income or $95 per person ($47.50 per child under 18), whichever is higher. The fine grows annually.

Official numbers for how many Alaskans have signed up for health insurance only date to the end of February. By then, 6,666 people had enrolled. It's a number that climbed dramatically with time -- first 53 in October, rising to 345 the next month and 2,958 in December.

Nationally, reports said that after a Monday surge, the Obama administration would likely hit their goal of 7 million Americans signed up for health insurance under the 2010 health care law.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at or 257-4589.