Open enrollment for Obamacare ends at midnight Friday, and residents across Illinois were scrambling to meet the deadline.
This year’s enrollment period was about half as long as last year’s, giving consumers just six weeks to select their insurance plan for 2018. In previous years, enrollment has stayed open through the end of January.
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, by Friday morning, 4.7 million Americans – nearly 170,000 in Illinois – had enrolled in Obamacare since the start of enrollment on Nov. 1. More than one million waited until the last week to sign up.
GetCovered Illinois, the state’s health care marketplace, has run ads warning consumers of the approaching deadline, but many still waited until the last minute. According to Brian Goreman, director of public education and consumer assurance for GetCovered, the number of Illinois residents who waited until the final week to sign up was 17 percent higher this year than during last year’s sign-up period.
Across the state, helpers called “navigators” have been available to assist insurance shoppers find the best plan, and wade through the healthcare.gov website.
“Sometimes people like to procrastinate and then they can’t figure out the marketplace,” said Sharon Johnson, a certified navigator with the Patient Innovation Center. Johnson was one of three navigators who offered walk-in hours at the Thompson Center on Friday.
One common problem, said Johnson, is that consumers are unable to access the email address connected to their healthcare.gov account, or answer their security questions.
Zachery Martin, 49, came to the Thompson Center for help Friday afternoon, about eight hours before the deadline. Martin said he was able to navigate the enrollment by himself last year, but this year he had trouble connecting his email and accessing the website, and felt pressure from the shorter enrollment period.
“Trying to do it online myself was a joke,” said Martin, “I tried on my PC and I tried on my phone, but the website just kept crashing.”
Luckily, Johnson was able to help, and Martin enrolled on time.
“I now have insurance, and it’s a plan I can afford,” said Martin with a smile.
For other shoppers, logging into the marketplace and applying is easy, but finding an affordable plan gets tricky.
“A lot of people can navigate the site on their own, but then can’t find a plan with a premium [monthly payment] that fits in their budget,” said Johnson.
On deadline day, Johnson said she helped more than 25 consumers who encountered problems or questions, and she expected her phone to be “ringing all night.”
Syuzanna Bradford, enrollment coordinator at the Patient Innovation Center, said navigators were feeling the pressure of changes under the Trump administration.
In addition to a shorter enrollment period, the administration announced in August that funding for navigators would be cut around 40 percent, and the advertising budget for enrollment information would be cut from $100 million to $10 million.
“It’s been different this year, we have had people calling us non-stop,” she said, adding that the Thompson Center has been fully staffed with navigators Monday through Friday since enrollment opened. Despite their efforts, they haven’t been able to meet the higher demand.
“All our navigators have been booked and couldn’t take any more walk-ins,” said Bradford. “Because of the shorter enrollment time, we just haven’t had the capacity to help everyone.”
Earlier this year, the Illinois Department of Insurance hosted an outreach program, bringing navigators to all 102 counties. According to the department, more than 350,000 Illinois residents enrolled through the marketplace for 2017.