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Obamacare: Rush is on as health insurance deadline looms

For two hours on a frigid December evening, Tracelli Rockford stood on a bridge outside a CTA train station in East Garfield Park, her cheeks and lips so cold she struggled to form words. 

The health organizer with the nonprofit Garfield Park Community Council, is one of the roughly 1,500 paid helpers in Illinois seeking to assist people in signing up for new health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Along with about a dozen others at CTA platforms scattered throughout the city, Rockford battled the bitter cold to hand out information-filled brochures printed in English and Spanish.

With just days left before the Dec. 23 deadline to sign up for health coverage that will kick in Jan. 1, community groups, insurance companies and the state and federal governments are redoubling their efforts to spur uninsured Americans to seek coverage as the health law known as Obamacare races toward its first major deadline.

"I don't even know how cold it was, but I believe it was well worth it," said Rockford, 42, who said she distributed about 450 fliers that evening. "Whatever it takes to get the message across for consumers to understand the nature of health coverage and what's available to them."

Though open enrollment in the new plans will extend to March 31, consumers must sign up by Monday for coverage to be effective Jan. 1.

Community groups that received funding from the federal government to help the uninsured navigate the sign-up process are blanketing neighborhoods like Garfield Park, which has one of the highest concentrations of uninsured residents in Illinois.

The state, meanwhile, is amid a 10-day, $1 million advertising and marketing push that includes a flurry of TV and radio spots, newspaper ads and digital outreach. The push aims to raise awareness of new benefits available under the law. Starting Friday, the state also is extending its Get Covered Illinois help-desk hours to 7 a.m.-10 p.m., from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., through Monday.

Insurers and brokers are reporting a crush of consumers seeking to buy insurance policies within the last two weeks, prompting them to extend call-center hours, beef up staff and flood the airwaves and newspapers with ads.

Their combined ability to drive people to new health insurance exchanges designed for consumers to compare and buy coverage is crucial in bolstering what so far have been lackluster enrollment figures across the country and in Illinois.

Only 7,043 Illinoisans selected a private health policy on the new insurance exchanges in October and November, falling well short of federal projections.

The low figures underscore the widespread problems with, the federal website running new insurance exchanges for 36 states, including Illinois, that was so badly hobbled in its first two months of operation that many consumers either could not sign up for plans or remained on the sidelines.

Those figures came before a flurry of technology fixes implemented at the end of November, aimed at rescuing the federal website. Officials say it is functioning far better in December.

Though the government hasn't released any enrollment data for the month, anecdotal data from insurers and brokers indicate a renewed interest among consumers shopping for health plans over the last few weeks, with volumes building as the Monday deadline nears.

"We are just getting bombarded with consumers who are just now hearing (the exchanges) are working," said Clint Jones, chief executive of GoHealth LLC, a Chicago-based online insurance broker where people can compare and buy health plans, including those that come with a government subsidy. "The volume is picking up daily. It's been really, really crazy."

GoHealth has extended its call-center operations by two hours to 8 a.m.-2 a.m. through Monday to handle volumes it expects to be extraordinarily high.

It also is adding staff and offering overtime pay to entice its call-center agents to take on additional hours, in part to accommodate the dozen or so individual insurers that outsource all or part of their call-center operations to GoHealth, including local startup Land of Lincoln Health.

Land of Lincoln this week doubled its number of phone lines to meet high demand and is prepared to expand even more to handle an expected influx of calls over the weekend, said Alexandra Normington, a spokeswoman.

The insurer recently launched its first paid advertising campaign that includes television and radio spots along with billboard and public-transportation ads.

Humana Inc., another insurer offering policies to Illinois consumers on the exchange, said Thursday that it will keep its call centers open around-the-clock through Monday to handle a deluge of consumer enrollments.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the state's largest insurer, said it has added staff and will keep its call center open for three additional hours on Friday and Monday, and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

"Every week we're adding staff to our call centers, and we're also enhancing our call routing features to better serve our customers," said Lauren Perlstein, a spokeswoman for Blue Cross' parent company. "We've also scaled our website to handle very high amounts of traffic (and) enrollments."

Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago, a nonprofit that teams up with community groups to bring resources to distressed neighborhoods, said improvements made to the federal website, coupled with the looming deadline to sign up for Jan. 1 coverage, are pushing more consumers into action.

The 21 counselors it has funded through a federal grant have had more success this month helping people sign up for private coverage, though frustrations remain, she said.

Many of the people its counselors encounter still "don't know anything about the law," she said. "If you're not really paying attention to the press every day and you're working two or three jobs, this is not something on top of your radar screen."

It's a perception that LISC and other community groups have worked hard to change in recent months, with efforts like canvassing CTA platforms and other outreach and education initiatives that organizers expect to remain central to enrollment campaigns through the end of March.

"This is a massive policy change, and it's not going to be done in three months," Vasquez said. "We have to have a deep relationship with people. The layers of outreach and education are important because it helps shore up confidence at the neighborhood level. And if we can do that, we can start raising awareness about the importance of health insurance to create healthier communities."

Twitter @peterfrost

Obamacare: Rush is on as health insurance deadline looms

Illinois insurers, community groups boost efforts to sign up consumers

By Peter Frost, Chicago Tribune reporter, December 20, 2013

Keywords: Affordable Cable Act, Chicago Tribune, health insurance, Obamacare

Posted in Community Highlights, Government Resources and Services, Healthcare/Health Resources