With only a few days left for Marylanders to begin the process of signing up for health insurance or risk a government fine, thousands of residents are seeking help with the state’s online marketplace — and often waiting hours, or even days, to get it.
A line of people in search of coverage began to form at 6 a.m. Wednesday outside the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services’ Silver Spring center, one of the region’s busiest enrollment operations.
When the doors opened at 8 a.m., more than 40 people rushed inside, following paper signs printed with the word “Obamacare” to the second floor and fighting to get their names on the sign-in sheet.
“I’m doing this because I have to, not because I’m getting sick,” said Jorge Olivares, 24, who was No. 15 in line after getting turned away Tuesday.
Olivares said that he tried to sign up on Maryland’s problem-plagued Web site earlier this week but that his application would not go through. His relatives have been urging him for weeks to enroll before the March 31 deadline, he said, and he regrets waiting until the last minute.
“I don’t want to pay a fine,” Olivares said, standing in line with a folder labeled “Taxes 2013” and a paperback that promised to teach him how to become rich. “I don’t even know what the fine is, but I don’t want to pay it.”
The center’s trained “navigators” can process only about 150 applications per day on their seven computers. That means the 10th person on the sign-up sheet will be seen about an hour after the place opens, while No. 30 could be there until past lunch. Those in the 50s and 60s were advised to cancel their plans for the day, and those numbering in the hundreds worried that they wouldn’t be seen before the center closed at 5 p.m.
Once the list nears 150, the center’s volunteers and staff member turn people away, encouraging them to try again earlier the next day. On Wednesday, that happened at 11 a.m.
Although Maryland officials have long expected a last-minute burst of applicants, some say the traffic this week has surprised them. The number of calls for assistance has more than doubled, along with the number of new accounts created.
Until this week, the Silver Spring center saw between 60 and 80 people most days. On Saturday, more than 250 people stopped by, said Lesly Martinez, the program manager.
Nationally, groups helping people sign up for insurance are seeing a surge of interest as the deadline looms. Some groups said they were almost completely booked with appointments through the end of the sign-up period.
The Obama administration says traffic has been heavy on the federal government’s main enrollment Web site, HealthCare.gov, with a flood of calls to its help line. In California, 50,000 people started applications on Tuesday – more than at any time since open enrollment began, officials said. More than 12,000 residents signed up in Washington state last week — four times the weekly average.
Maryland officials decided last week to soften the March 31 deadline for enrolling through the online exchange, saying residents could complete the process after the deadline as long as they start by Monday and alert the state that they have done so by calling a hotline (800-396-1961). The federal government announced a similar change Tuesday. The District’s exchange has extended its deadline for those needing extra help to April 15, officials said Wednesday. Applicants who qualify for Medicaid can enroll at any time.
The Maryland exchange had hoped to enroll at least 150,000 Marylanders in private health plans during the first enrollment period, which began Oct. 1. But state leaders later said that goal was based on flawed research, and reset the goal to between 75,000 and 100,000 enrollees. As of March 15, 44,836 people had signed up.
Addis Abreham, 27, who lives in New Carrollton, tried enrolling online when the exchange first opened, but her account jammed up. She went to the Silver Spring center last week but didn’t have the proper tax forms. She took an unpaid day off from her job prepping food for government cafeterias to get enrolled Tuesday.
Abreham arrived at the center at 9 a.m. and was still waiting six hours later.
She could get insurance through work, she said, but that would cost $226 per week. She hoped to enroll in a plan through the Maryland exchange that would cost less, maybe $200 total a month. Free would be ideal.
“It’s better to have insurance,” said Abreham, who has been to the emergency room for serious problems but doesn’t get regular check-ups.” She added that she is well aware of the deadline: “I am friends with Obama on Facebook, and he lets me know every day.”
Navigators at the center spend much of their time explaining the complicated basics of health insurance. Although the sign-up deadline is well publicized, there is confusion about nearly everything else. Several of those waiting for help Tuesday and Wednesday said they had no idea what sort of insurance they wanted, for example, or how much it might cost.
“We want them to make a very informed decision,” said Martinez, the program manager. “They’ve never had insurance before, so we have to explain: ‘What is a co-pay? What is a deductible?’ ”
The center sees a high number of immigrants, some of whom speak limited English. Although Maryland had hoped to launch a Spanish-language version of its exchange, that never happened.
Carmen Munguia — No. 8 — said she arrived at the center at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and fought to get a low-numbered ticket. It was her third visit this week. Munguia, 47, didn’t even try to sign up using the Web site because of the language barrier.
She and her husband, who works in construction, have never had health insurance. For years they relied on a mobile health clinic, which recently referred them to the enrollment center.
“It’s an obligation,” Munguia said of the requirement to have health insurance. “I think.”
Sandhya Somashekhar and Lena Sun contributed to this report.