A surge of last-minute applicants in Eau Claire County raced to beat Monday’s deadline to sign up for health insurance under the national health care reform law.

“We’ve been crazy busy out front today, with nonstop people coming in and asking questions and applying for benefits,” said Linda Struck, economic support supervisor for the Eau Claire County Department of Human Services. “It’s a sign that it is March 31.”

The rush started early, Struck said, as the volume of county residents who applied for coverage through access.wisconsin.gov was five times the normal rate over the weekend. The agency typically has been receiving reports of about a dozen applicants on weekends.

Unfortunately, officials said, the nationwide flood of 11th-hour applicants through the Affordable Care Act marketplace led to more glitches in the federal HealthCare.gov website that people use to sign up for coverage.

A busy day

By midafternoon Monday, Eau Claire insurance agent Pat Turay of The Insurance Center said he was working with five people trying to enroll on what was supposed to be the last official day to sign up to avoid a financial penalty for not meeting the law’s requirement that everyone have health insurance. The website was not allowing Turay to complete those enrollments, but he was holding out hope for better luck in the evening. He also was expecting an after-work rush later in the day.

Likewise, Sue Lane, the navigator in charge of educating residents of Eau Claire, Chippewa and Clark counties about ACA enrollment, said she knew of several people who had difficulty completing the process Monday through the federal website or telephone help line.

“I can vouch for a lot of people who tried but couldn’t get through to finish their application,” Lane said.

Grace period

The federal government has granted a 14-day extension for those who made a good faith effort but were unable to complete the process before Monday’s deadline, local officials said.

In light of the latest website glitches, Struck said, county workers were advising people with income above the poverty level to at least try to go on HealthCare.gov and get an application started before the deadline. While it’s unclear if the federal government will require proof, she recommended that people document their efforts to enroll.

State complications

Complicating matters are other changes happening at the same time in Wisconsin, where GOP Gov. Scott Walker shifted 75,000 adults with incomes above the poverty level off BadgerCare and allowed about 82,000 childless adults below the poverty level to gain BadgerCare coverage.

Individuals who lose BadgerCare coverage as of today have a 60-day special enrollment period in which to find alternative coverage through the federal marketplace, or exchange.

“They’re going to want to do that as quickly as possible,” Struck recommended.

Previous site success

Turay said the federal website had been working well lately — enabling him to enroll 36 clients in the past week — before the problems he presumed were caused by an overwhelming surge in demand at the deadline.

Eau Claire County, which has experienced steadily rising volume in recent months as the deadline approached, had processed 1,267 applications as of March 15, Struck said. The statewide figure was 71,065.

Chris Bruni, director of consumer sales for Marshfield-based Security Health Plan, one of two providers offering coverage through the ACA in the Chippewa Valley, said the company had a large number of preregistrations for an enrollment fair Monday in Chippewa Falls and expected a flood of walk-ins as well. No actual attendance figures were available as of late Monday afternoon.

“A lot of people just procrastinated, some because they lost coverage and some because it’s just human nature to procrastinate,” Bruni said.

Law supported

Despite the well-publicized website problems, Lane said she is confident the health care reform law has helped many uninsured people obtain coverage and that the enrollment process will go smoother in the future.

“As time goes by, I think every year will get better,” Lane said. “With any change of this magnitude, it’s going to take a while to get all the kinks out and get it working the way it was intended.”

©2014 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)