Shots - Health News
11:05 am
Wed December 18, 2013

People Buying Health Insurance Get A Bit More Time To Pay

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 1:34 pm

There are seven shopping days left until Christmas. But there are just five days until another important deadline — the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act if you want coverage to start January 1.

After a slow start, activity on the federal website HealthCare.gov has been heavy all month. And with the deadline approaching, some people are getting worried that they won't get signed up in time.

And this being the health care law, it's complicated. There is more than one deadline.

The first, for people in the 36 states where the federal government is running the program, is Dec. 23. That's the date by which you have to select a plan.

But you're not actually enrolled in the plan until you pay the first month's premium. The original payment deadline was Dec. 31. But just today, the insurance industry voluntarily agreed to give people until Jan. 10 to pay that first month's premium. You pay it directly to your new insurance plan, not to the exchange where you signed up.

A few states running their own exchanges have extended that date even longer. Maryland, which has had all kinds of problems with its website, is giving people until Dec. 27 to sign up, and until Jan. 15 to pay that first month's premium.

Despite the improvements to HealthCare.gov, some people still say they're having problems signing up. One of the fixes that seem to be helping people who got stuck is a do-over button. If you've started an application but got bogged down somewhere along the line, you can now go in and click on a button marked "remove." Then you start the process over.

And if that doesn't work, both the federal website and most of the states operating their own health exchanges have easily identifiable ways to get help. The toll-free help lines run by the states and the federal exchange are pretty busy right now.

A better bet is to click on links that will help you find live people who can help you in your community. These people are called navigators or assisters or counselors. You can also go to an insurance broker.

On the federal website's home page there's a button that says "find local help"; plug in your zip code and a list will come up. Most state websites have something similar. They can direct you to organizations that are helping people sign up for coverage.

But even with help, there are still some states where things just aren't working very well. Oregon, for example, where the deadline to sign up was actually Dec. 4. The state continues to pay hundreds of temporary workers to process paper applications because its website isn't working.

There's one easy shortcut if you are not eligible for a subsidy to help pay your premiums. You can shop and buy coverage directly from an insurance company or one of many online web brokers, like eHealthInsurance.com or GoHealth.com.

If you don't have a computer, you can go to a local community health center and get help enrolling. Some CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens pharmacies are helping direct people to places they can get help signing up, or they're hosting sign-up events.

And if you've got still more questions, check out NPR's new searchable guide to the Affordable Care Act.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In case you didn't know, there are just seven shopping days left until Christmas. But there's only five days until another important deadline: the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, that's if you want coverage to start January 1st. After a slow start, activity on the federal website, HealthCare.gov, has been busy all month. With the deadline approaching, some people are worried that they've left it until too late.

Never fear, NPR's Julie Rovner joins us now with some tips for you last-minute insurance shoppers, which doesn't sound all that exciting, Julie. But welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Sorry about that.

CORNISH: So Julie, remind us again, what are the deadlines we're talking about?

ROVNER: Well, of course, this being the health law, there are more than one. And there is actually some news to report on this front. The deadline for people in the 36 states where the federal government is running the program is December 23rd. That's the date by which you have to select a plan.

Now, you're not actually enrolled in a plan until you pay your first month's premium. That's very important. That deadline was December 31st. But just today, the insurance industry voluntarily agreed to give people until January 10th to pay that first month's premium. And remember, you pay it directly to your new insurance plan, not to the exchange where you signed up.

A few states running their own exchanges have extended that date even longer. Maryland, for example, which has had all kinds of problems with its website, is giving people until December 27th to sign up, and until January 15th to pay that first month's premium.

CORNISH: OK. And so we're clear, most people have until December 23rd, right?

ROVNER: Right.

CORNISH: But meantime, the Obama administration says the federal website, HealthCare.gov, is working better. But some people still say they've been stuck for weeks and can't finish signing up. What can they do?

ROVNER: Well, one of the fixes that got made to the website that seems to be helping a lot of people who got stuck early on in the process is basically a do-over button. If you've started an application but got bogged down somewhere along the line, you can now go in and click on a button marked remove. Then you just literally start the process all over.

CORNISH: All right, what about those who have waited until the last minute and still can't figure things out? Is it too late for them to get help?

ROVNER: No, in most cases it's not. Both the federal website and most of the states operating their own health exchanges have easily identifiable ways to get help. You can, of course, always call toll-free help lines, either the federal government's call center or one run by your state. Those are pretty busy right now with people who've waited till the last minute.

Probably a better bet is to click on links that will help find live people who can help you in your community. These people are called various things, sometimes navigators or assistors or counselors. You can also go to an insurance broker. On the federal website's homepage, there's a button that says find local help, where you just plug in your zip code and a list will pop up. Most state websites have something similar. They can direct you to organizations that are helping people sign up for coverage.

CORNISH: But there are those states where things just aren't working very well?

ROVNER: That's right, there are a couple, Oregon, for example, where the deadline to sign up was actually December 4th. One easy shortcut if you're not eligible for a subsidy to help you pay your premiums, you can actually shop and buy coverage directly from an insurance company or one of many online Web brokers, like eHealthInsurance.com or GoHealth.com. The federal government is still working on helping those outside groups process enrollments for people who are eligible for help paying their premiums. But right now, that's pretty spotty.

CORNISH: And for those of us who do not have a computer, is this all online?

ROVNER: Mostly, but not all. You can pretty much to go any local community health center and get help. Even some pharmacies - CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens - are helping direct people to places they can get help signing up, or they're helping host actual sign-up events. So you can find actual live help in your community.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Julie Rovner. Julie, thank you.

ROVNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.