COLUMBIA - With uninsured South Carolinians facing a deadline of midnight Monday for signing up for health care coverage, enrollment counselors reported a surge of people seeking their help.
But more technical glitches with the federal website prevented people from accessing their options. Navigators at Richland County's public library and Cooperative Ministry in Columbia say first-time users of the online exchange had to leave a message Monday after calling the federal government's toll-free number. Like the website, the hotline was overwhelmed. A voice recording said messages will be returned after April 1.
Dozens of people waiting in a library room for one-on-one help were informed about noon that counselors could only help get their names into the system, allowing people to sign up later. People not signed up by midnight Monday face a federal penalty in 2015 of $95 or 1 percent of their income - whichever is greater - for not having health insurance. However, people trying to apply automatically qualify for extensions to the deadline.
"People are relieved to at least complete that much of the process," Wanda Pearson, program director at Cooperative Ministry, said of people trying to create an account.
But getting the help they need later may be difficult.
"We have seven people here to assist. Later in the week, we won't have seven people here to help them enroll," said Laura Morris, spokeswoman for Richland Library.
South Carolina is among the 36 states that chose not to run its own online exchange, leaving that responsibility to the federal government. So the state government has spent no money advertising the law or how to sign up.
But other groups have worked to fill the gap. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for the poor, launched www.signupsc.com last December to be a central site for the various education and enrollment events happening across the state. Richland Library has been particularly proactive, thanks to a $175,000 private grant.
Insurance companies and organizers say they've seen a surge of activity in the past week. More than 350 people attended a sign-up event Saturday at Richland County's main library.
Lee Patterson, who's coordinating the library's efforts, said about half of those who came for help learned they fall into a coverage gap between qualifying for Medicaid and making enough to qualify for premium subsidies. South Carolina is among the states not expanding Medicaid eligibility, as the law intended. People falling into that gap, estimated at roughly 200,000, are exempt from paying the fine for not having health care.
In South Carolina, four insurers - three when you consider that Blue Cross Blue Shield and its affiliate are marketing together - are offering a total of 52 plans to individuals and families over the exchange. That includes eight "catastrophic" plans, which the federal law limits to those under 30 and some low-income residents.
Blue Cross Blue Shield and its licensee, BlueChoice, as well as the health insurance cooperative Consumers' Choice - one of 24 nationwide created by the federal law - are offering plans statewide. Coventry Health Care, which was bought last year by Aetna, is offering plans in 11 of the state's 46 counties.
Consumers' Choice held enrollment fairs in Columbia, Greenville and Charleston on Saturday.
"After lunch, we were slammed," spokeswoman Adrian Grimes said of the event at a North Charleston elementary school. "We closed the doors at 5 but had people waiting."
Blue Cross Blue Shield reported high traffic at its three stores in Columbia, Greenville and Mount Pleasant, where hours were extended until 9 p.m. Monday.