Data courtesy Enroll America.

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Even as deadlines pass, people without health insurance are not signing up.

By Rose Hoban

New data Thursday from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds two-thirds of people who lack health insurance are unaware of the looming deadlines to get covered before facing financial penalties.

During last year’s enrollment period, pastors were encouraged to place drop boxes in their churches to collect cards from people seeking information on how to sign up for insurance. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Only 7 percent of respondents in the national poll correctly knew that the enrollment period to get coverage offered through the online exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act runs through Jan 31.

Thursday was the last day to sign up for coverage that would begin on Jan 1 – an extension from the previously announced date of Dec 15.

“I think there’s been a learning curve to understanding how all this works,” said Sorien Schmidt, North Carolina head of Enroll America, a not-for-profit organization coordinating sign-ups for the exchanges in 11 states. “The simpler it is, the easier and the faster people move on the learning curve. But multiple deadlines is a little more complicated.”

Kaiser surveyors also found that about a quarter (27 percent) of the uninsured thought the requirement for obtaining insurance did not apply to them.

[pullquote_right]The final deadline to sign up for insurance is Jan. 31, 2016[/pullquote_right]There are some people who don’t have to be insured: if you don’t make enough money to file taxes, if the cheapest plan available to you costs more than 8 percent of your annual salary or if you would have qualified for Medicaid had North Carolina chosen to expand the program.

Schmidt said this confusion is not a surprise. She cited research done this spring by national firm PerryUndem that found lots of misunderstanding about the law and about insurance and subsidies available to low-income uninsured.

“There are still people in each group that needed information about the new plans coming out each year and how the subsidy works and what the deadlines are,” she said. “We’re trying to reach out to them and get the word out that financial help is available, and that there’s free assistance to help them get enrolled easily and that the help is free.”

(Read our story about outreach efforts to sign up people in rural North Carolina)

About half of the respondents in the Kaiser poll said they didn’t plan on getting insurance because they didn’t think they could afford it. But Schmidt said those folks need to take a second look and get some assistance in signing up.

[pullquote_left]In North Carolina, consumers can call: 1-855-733-3711 to schedule an appointment for help enrolling in insurance.[/pullquote_left]“We’re finding people are coming into events and say they can’t afford it,” she said. “Then they sit down and are able to find plans they feel good about. Getting that last bit of questions answered is very helpful.”
When asked about the deadline to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, most respondents did not know the deadlines. Graph courtesy the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Schmidt also said there are people who aren’t paying attention, and that’s borne out in the numbers in the Kaiser poll: 13 percent didn’t think the requirement to get health insurance applied to them and 7 percent didn’t know there was a new requirement to be covered.

“It’s a big change to be required to have health insurance,” she said. “I feel like a lot more people are coming in with more awareness of the marketplace and there’s more understanding of the financial help available.”

That lack of awareness is likely to change dramatically next year as higher penalties for being uninsured kick in. People will be levied a minimum tax fine of $695 per adult and $347.50 per child (up to $2,085 for a family) or 2.5 percent of your salary, whichever is greater, for remaining uninsured.

Schmidt said that even though premiums have climbed this year, subsidies for buying insurance have also increased. In North Carolina, close to 92 percent of people who signed up for insurance on the exchanges last year were eligible for some form of subsidy.

She recommended that people get online and check out alternative insurance plans and see how much subsidies might have increased. Schmidt also strongly suggested people call the statewide help line that’s been set up in North Carolina to get local help from a live person.

Data courtesy Enroll America.

The assisters are experts, Schmidt said. “They know all the tools, they know how to update your information and help you calculate the amount of financial help you can qualify for.”

When other insurance programs were implemented, it took years for people to wrap their heads around what they needed to do every year, Schmidt said. She pointed to the Massachusetts health reform plan passed in 2006, the Medicare Part D drug benefit and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program that rolled out in the 1990s as examples of how long it takes for people to learn about what they need to do and when they need to do it.

“Enrollment and awareness seemed to level off in year five. That’s when you see enrollment staying consistent” she said. “So this is really going as we thought it would.

“It feels different than in 2013, when we went out there and they’d just look at you like you were from Mars when you mentioned health insurance.”

Side/ pull quotes: Enroll America website, deadlines, statewide phone number, art: pie chart from Kaiser

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North Carolina Health News is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering health care in North Carolina employing the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy...