Officials: Health care enrollment in Lowcountry to remain busy through 2nd deadline

dburley@islandpacket.com, zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comApril 5, 2014 

Hundreds of Lowcountry residents rushed to enroll in the federal health insurance marketplace before the Affordable Care Act's March 31 deadline, according to Beaufort County health care leaders.

The stream spilled into April, as many signed up last week, health officials said, and it's not expected to stop soon.

With President Barack Obama extending enrollment for those who tried but failed to register online, area health leaders anticipate another surge as the April 15 deadline approaches. Those filing paper applications have until April 7, according to the White House.

"We had a rush up to the deadline," said Debbie Slazyk, director of Access Health Lowcountry. "And we'll continue to see clients whom we have worked with in the past."

More than 60 people visited the Beaufort Black Chamber of Commerce's offices to enroll in the days before the March 31 deadline, president Larry Holman said -- in fact, he had to call all seven of the chamber's health care navigators to handle the demand.

"Our people were here from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. answering our hotline, and boy, it was hot," he said. "We did well in Beaufort, and we seemed to have done better in the end than in the beginning."

In March, the chamber enrolled 300 previously uninsured people, he said. About 32,000 residents in Beaufort and Jasper counties are uninsured, according to a Beaufort Memorial Hospital estimate.

More than 55,000 South Carolinians had enrolled in the marketplace as of March 1, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More recent figures were not available Friday, and county-by-county data have not been released.

At Hilton Head Island and Coastal Carolina hospitals, health services assistants held weekly enrollment events to help people sign up, said Holly Mlodzinski, health promotions coordinator at Hilton Head Island Hospital.

In March, assistants enrolled 90 people at Hilton Head Island Hospital and another 55 at Coastal Carolina Hospital, Mlodzinski said. Those numbers are well above the dozen or so that enrolled at each location in January, she added.

"We're still doing sign ups today, and it's been very busy," Mlodzinski said Friday. "It's been a dramatic increase over February and January."

Slazyk, who oversees the program at Beaufort Memorial, said she saw more than 30 people last week after the open enrollment deadline.

Many were late signing up because they had technical problems with the federal website -- Healthcare.gov -- which was glitch-ridden during its October launch and still crashes occasionally.

Others were returning because they started the process but didn't decide on a premium.

"Sometimes they want to talk to their spouse, or their neighbor, to pick the right plan," she said. "We give them information, and luckily they can still come back," without paying the $95 penalty for not registering before the deadline.

Don Hendrickson, a volunteer who has helped people enroll at Hilton Head Hospital and Volunteers in Medicine, said navigators will be on hand until the April 15 deadline.

Crowds might not stretch out the hospital door, as they did before the open-enrollment deadline, he said.

But things will be busy.

"Just like (March 31), a lot of people will have procrastinated."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan and reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

Related content:

More Beaufort County residents buying federal health insurance as deadline approaches, Feb. 15,

Low-key opening expected for health insurance marketplace, Oct. 1, 2014:

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