Beaufort County health care workers say more people signed up for federal health insurance plans in January than in all three previous months combined.
Now agencies are doubling efforts to insure residents before the Affordable Care Act's open enrollment period ends March 31. After that, anyone without insurance will have to pay a penalty.
More than 250 previously uninsured Lowcountry residents enrolled in the program last month with Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, which helps patients navigate the S.C. federal insurance marketplace.
In all, the agency has enrolled more than 350 since the program began in October, according to outreach and enrollment coordinator Caroline Fermin.
"The first two months were dismal, horrible," she said, referring to glitches in the federal website. "Sometimes we'd spend all day with customers just to get their account set up.
"But lately, people have been coming in droves."
The local trend appears to be consistent with the rest of the state. Nearly half of the 41,300 South Carolinians who have purchased insurance with the program did so in January, according to numbers released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. County-by-county data were not immediately available Friday.
About 32,000 residents in Beaufort and Jasper counties are uninsured, according to Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Many of them will have to pay the $95 penalty if they don't sign up in time.
To help avoid the payment, area health care coordinators are offering more chances for uninsured residents to buy insurance.
Hilton Head Hospital is hosting sign-up sessions in its main lobby from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Friday until the deadline. Coastal Carolina Hospital is doing the same every Monday.
At Beaufort Memorial, workers will be available to assist Tuesday through Friday until the end of March.
Access Health Lowcountry director Debbie Slazyk, who oversees the Beaufort Memorial program, said the hospital saw about 45 residents by appointment in January. Twenty enrolled at the hospital, while others received help and might have enrolled at home.
"Not everybody wants to make their choice right there," she said. "They could go home, think about the decision and log back in."
She said part of the difficulty of enrollment is directing people through the complex language of health insurance.
"The insurance jargon of co-pays, deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums, understanding what a high deductible plan is versus a more traditional plan -- that becomes complicated," she said. "You want them to understand the financial liability with the policy they choose."
Larry Holman, president of the Beaufort Black Chamber of Commerce, said his organization will visit businesses, churches and schools in the Lowcountry to sign up residents before the deadline.
The chamber received $234,000 in federal grants to train employees to help people navigate the website.
Holman said the chamber has enrolled 20 to 30 people each week, and enrollment has picked up since December.
He expects to be busier near the deadline.
"I think people are aware of the deadline; they want to do the right thing," he said. "I think tax (refunds) will help, too. You need a little bit of money to pay that first premium."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.
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