WHEELING - Wheeling Health Right is seeing many panicked patients who fear they may lose their health insurance coverage by Jan. 1 or aren't certain what they should be doing to get health insurance.
Meanwhile, the state insurance commissioner's office has informed free clinics that people without health insurance won't be assessed penalties so long as they have their coverage in place by April 1.
The deadline to enroll in the Health Insurance Marketplace under the Affordable Care Act - and avoid fines for not having health insurance - is Jan. 1, but problems with the online application process have prohibited many from enrolling in the new health care system.
Wheeling Health Right is among the free clinics in the state registering patients in the Health Insurance Marketplace, and Executive Director Kathie Brown says her organization "may have got two people in" through use of the healthcare.gov website that went active Oct. 1
Wheeling Health Right instead has used a paper application process to enroll patients. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services acknowledges the paper process can take up to 10 weeks to complete "due to the high number of correspondences that must occur between a consumer and CMS."
"As a result of these transactions, the paper application process may prevent a consumer from having coverage effective Jan. 1, 2014, due to the application needing to be finalized by Dec. 15, 2013 for that coverage effective date," said Jeff Wiseman, spokesman for the insurance commissioner's office, in a message to the state's free clinics. "CMS has encouraged the use of the healthcare.gov website and the Marketplace Call Center over the paper applications to help expedite the enrollment process.
"If an individual still wishes to enroll in the marketplace using a paper application, consumers should be made aware of the time frame for processing and ... know that so long as they have coverage in place by April 1, 2014, they will not incur a penalty for not having health insurance," he said.
Those applying online must respond to e-mails sent to them as they apply, according to Brown.
"It's not a painless, seamless process," she said. "It takes a while. There are a lot of different questions they ask, then they send you an email to which you have to respond. Even with paper ... there's a lot of back and forth correspondence. It's easier by e-mail - if they have access to e-mail."
Brown said many people are worried at what may happen at the beginning of next year.
"Healthcare.gov hasn't been able to handle the volume, and people are scrambling," she said. "Then the (federal government) shut down, and people panicked because they thought they were going to be subject to penalties. This overloaded the system. People are scared - really, really scared. They are coming to us and saying, 'I don't know what to do.'"