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HealthCare.gov Enrollment Ends Friday. Sign-Ups Likely To Trail Last Year's

Dec 13, 2017
Originally published on December 13, 2017 11:18 pm

Friday is the last day to enroll in a health insurance plan through the federal government's insurance exchange, HealthCare.gov.

And in a little office park in Northern Virginia, Brima Bob Deen is dealing with the rush.

He is the president of a church-sponsored job training center called Salvation Academy. But this time of year, he acts mostly as an enrollment counselor for Affordable Care Act health plans.

And this week, his calendar is full.

"Every year when you get close to the end, that's when you have a lot of people come in," he says.

Deen has stopped allowing people to stand in line outside his office and instead now requires them to make an appointment. That way, he says, he can give them his full attention, rather than being distracted by impatient people waiting.

As we sit to talk, a client calls with an update. The man had been rejected by the HealthCare.gov system because of issues with his email. He tells Deen that his son has helped him resolve the problem.

"Yesterday I have a client and she has difficulty in choosing a plan based on her tax credits and her qualifications," Deen says. "She has this bunch of plans — there's silver, there's gold, and she's just confused."

As of Sunday, about 4.7 million people had enrolled in a health plan and more than a million of them were new customers. That's about 650,000 more than signed up in the first six weeks of last year, according to Lori Lodes, who ran outreach for HealthCare.gov during the Obama administration and is now leading an effort called Get America Covered.

"We are seeing record demand," Lodes says. "People want to get health coverage, and people are finding affordable coverage when they actually shop and sign up."

"The problem is that the enrollment period is cut in half," she adds.

Friday is the deadline, at least for people buying insurance through the federal marketplace. Several states run their own exchanges and those enrollment periods usually last longer.

The Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year cut the enrollment period, arguing that the shortened period would likely reduce the number of people who buy insurance only when they get sick. And the agency also cut the budget for outreach and advertising for HealthCare.gov by 90 percent.

Trump administration officials declined requests for an interview on this year's changes to enrollment. But a spokesman says the HealthCare.gov website and call centers are working smoothly and handling the final week's volume.

Lodes' group has been enlisting big names to help drum up awareness, including a YouTube video featuring West Wing actors Martin Sheen and Bradley Whitford.

"We are both here to remind you about the Affordable Care Act," they say. "And here's what you need to know. You gotta sign up!"

Former President Barack Obama has been on Twitter reminding people to enroll.

"It's up to all of use to spread the word. Sign up through this Friday," he tweeted.

And earlier this week, comedian Jimmy Kimmel gave HealthCare.gov a plug on his show.

"Obamacare is not dead," he said, while holding his son, who recently underwent surgery, on his hip. "It's very much alive. Millions of people qualify for a reduced rate or even totally free plans."

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Friday is the last day to enroll in a health insurance plan through healthcare.gov, the federal government's insurance exchange. Enrollment has been strong so far this year, but NPR's Alison Kodjak reports it probably will not reach last year's level, in part because the Trump administration cut the enrollment period in half.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: I'm in a little office park in suburban Virginia talking with Brima Bob Deen. He works at a job training center called Salvation Academy, and he's also an enrollment counselor for Affordable Care Act health plans. As we chat, his phone rings

BRIMA BOB DEEN: Yes, this is Mr. Deen from Salvation Academy, remember, the guy that was helping you with your affordable health care.

KODJAK: Deen talks with the client for about 10 minutes. He checks whether the client had filled out his application correctly. Last week, they had problems with the email address. Deen has spent the last five weeks helping people, mostly immigrants who live in northern Virginia, choose and sign up for ACA health plans.

DEEN: Yesterday, I have a client - she has difficulties in choosing the plan based on her tax credits and her qualification. She has these bunch of plans, and there's silver, there's gold, and she's just confused.

KODJAK: He explained to her the copayments and deductibles in each plan and helped her sign up. This week, he says, he's totally booked.

DEEN: Every year, when you get close to the end, that's when you have a lot of people come in.

KODJAK: And that's what advocates of the Affordable Care Act are counting on. As of Sunday, about 4.7 million people had enrolled in a health plan and more than a million of them were new customers. That's more than signed up in the first six weeks of last year.

LORI LODES: So we are seeing record demand. People want to get health coverage. And it also means that people are finding affordable coverage when they actually shop and they sign up.

KODJAK: That's Lori Lodes, who ran outreach for healthcare.gov during the Obama administration and is now leading an effort called Get America Covered.

LODES: The problem is that the enrollment period is cut in half.

KODJAK: And Friday is the last day to enroll, at least for people buying insurance through the federal marketplace. Several states run their own exchanges, and those enrollment periods usually last longer. Lodes' group has been enlisting big names to help drum up awareness...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN SHEEN: First...

BRADLEY WHITFORD: You got to sign up.

SHEEN: You got to sign up.

WHITFORD: You got to sign up.

SHEEN: Open enrollment is happening right now.

KODJAK: ...For example with actors Martin Sheen and Bradley Whitford, who recorded that YouTube video urging people to sign up. Former President Barack Obama has been on Twitter reminding people to enroll, and earlier this week, comedian Jimmy Kimmel gave healthcares.gov a plug on his show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

JIMMY KIMMEL: Obamacare is not dead. It's very much alive. Millions of people qualify for reduced rate or even totally free plans, but you only have...

KODJAK: Trump administration officials declined requests for an interview. But a spokesman says the healthcare.gov website and call centers are working smoothly and handling the final week's volume. Still, unless there's a giant surge in sign-ups in the next three days, analysts say it's hard to see how enrollment could reach last year's level. Alison Kodjak, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.