For the past several months, a normal Wednesday for Kimberly Jenkins has meant meeting with four to six people wanting to know about Affordable Care Act coverage.
But as the enrollment deadline draws near, as many as 30 people a day are contacting Jenkins, seeking her help with insurance applications. She is what’s known as a health insurance “navigator” and is assigned to Wilkes and 11 other rural counties in northeast Georgia.
“People like to wait until the last minute,” said Jenkins.
That “last minute” will come a bit later than many expected. The deadline had been March 31, but federal officials have extended it at least a couple of weeks into April for those who have had problems with enrolling on healthcare.gov, the federal website being used in Georgia and 35 other states.
Administration officials said Wednesday that the surge in applications ahead of next week’s deadline to sign up for coverage had led to high traffic on the federal website. They say the application surge could keep consumers from completing enrollment before the deadline at 11:59 p.m. Monday.
Jenkins believes the new flexibility will give people a much-needed chance to finish their enrollment. “The extension will give us more time to do exactly what we were hired to do,” she says.
And the enrollment surge could help a local hospital that is financially struggling.
During February, 38,000 Georgians enrolled in the ACA-authorized exchange, bringing the state’s overall total to 139,371. And this week, the state department of insurance reported the total Georgia number has edged up this month, exceeding 177,000 as of March 15.
In mid-March the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that sign-ups for exchange coverage surpassed 5 million nationwide. Then on Thursday, HHS announced it had exceeded 6 million enrollees.
Jenkins, like other navigators, has been specially trained in how the exchange and other innovations from the ACA work. She said her job is to “educate as many people as possible, help people with the application process, help them do exemptions, appeals and help people get insurance coverage.”
She has no enrollment quota to meet, and right now it’s impossible to know how many local residents have actually purchased coverage.
Acetra McWilliams, a resident of Washington, the Wilkes County seat, is one Georgian who did not wait until the last minute. She signed up for a policy early in the enrollment period.
After 30 years as a state employee, working for various agencies, McWilliams retired from the University System of Georgia. She was unable to purchase health insurance after retiring because she had not worked for the University System for five consecutive years.
As a result, McWilliams was uninsured for three years.
“So I signed up for Obamacare,” McWilliams said. “And yes, I proudly call it that.”
(Critics of the ACA have always called it Obamacare, while proponents and others have been divided on the use of the term.)
Hospitals could benefit
Final national and Georgia open enrollment figures for the exchange were expected to be available in April. Now, with the amended deadline, the data could come later still.
Various programs around the nation have trained navigators and helped place them in communities. Jenkins is part of the University of Georgia program, which came under fire during the just-completed Georgia General Assembly session. An anti-Obamacare bill that passed the Legislature and awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature would, among other things, end the UGA program when its current grant expires.
Meanwhile, local residents concerned about health care access, including those who work in hospitals, are watching the enrollment numbers closely. The stakes are especially high for small hospitals treating large numbers of uninsured patients.
Jenkins’ increasingly busy calendar could point to better days ahead for Wills Memorial Hospital in Washington. A critical care hospital, Wills Memorial has been losing money for the past three years, according to hospital CEO Jane Echols. Last month, she told The News-Reporter in Washington that she was “starting to worry” about the financial losses.
She has good reason for concern, given that four rural Georgia hospitals have shut down in the past two years.
The hospital loses about $1.5 million each year on care for people who have no coverage and who cannot afford to pay. ACA enrollment could decrease the number of uninsured people cared for by the hospital and could reduce these losses. Echols is eager to see the final tally for enrollment.
“It’s so hard to see,” said Echols. “Everyone wishes they had that crystal ball. We’re just taking it one day at a time, one month at a time, and one regulation at a time.”
“I think it’s a very positive thing that the Affordable Care Act was trying to give access to everyone equally. It somewhat backfired because not as many people jumped on that opportunity as they originally thought,” Echols said recently.
The ACA also promotes Medicaid expansion — which is optional for states — as a way to insure some of those poor people and in turn help struggling hospitals. In Georgia, expansion would extend coverage to hundreds of thousands of people.
But at least for now, such a move is not in the cards here. The governor, citing the cost to the state, has firmly rejected Medicaid expansion. And the Georgia General Assembly just passed a bill intended to make it harder for anyone to implement expansion in the future.
Alyssa Stafford is a graduate student at the University of Georgia, studying Health Media and Communication. She is also a freelance writer.