AUGUSTA, Maine — AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine's new online health insurance marketplace launched Tuesday and groups assisting the state's uninsured with the sign-up process urged patience as high interest led to delays for some consumers.
The marketplace, a key component of President Barack Obama's signature health care law, will require nearly everyone in the country to have health insurance by Jan . 1 or face fines. Consumers can enroll as late as Dec. 15 and still get coverage in time and open enrollment will continue through March 31.
"This is a marathon, it's not a dash," said Joseph Ditre, executive director of the Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care. "There's a six-month open enrollment period, so if you don't get signed up today, you have plenty of time."
Ditre's organization helped a few people sign up for coverage Tuesday morning, although he said some consumers were experiencing delays due to heavy traffic on the website. The website was telling people to "please wait" for several minutes or that the "system is down."
Residents can also contact the marketplace's call center or a community action agency or community health center to get a paper application.
The state estimates that as many as 250,000 residents could use the exchange, including about 130,000 who are uninsured, but anticipates that many will choose plans from individual insurers outside of the exchange or remain uninsured. Two companies, Maine Health Community Health Options and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, are offering coverage and lower-income residents can qualify for upfront discounts.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage has taken a hands-off approach to implementing the health care law in Maine, opting for a federally-run exchange like 35 other states. LePage argued that without knowing more details about the cost and nature of state-based exchanges, Maine could be forced to serve as the administrator of a new federal health care bureaucracy over which it has little control.
Jake Grindle, health services navigator for Western Maine Community Action, said that it will have a group of more than 80 people to explain the various plans on the marketplace. He said that the workers — known as "navigators" — weren't enrolling anyone Tuesday, but instead holding outreach events and setting up appointments with consumers.
"There's a lot of people who are hungry to get better health coverage," he said, "but I think if everybody is a little patient we'll have a successful rollout for sure."
Bjorn Streubel, a navigator in Waldo County, said much of his day was spent fielding calls from consumers who were upset that the system wasn't working or concerned that if they don't sign up for coverage by today that they'll be penalized.
"People are very edgy and nervous," he said. "What helps usually is you start laying out the dates for them and you reassure that it's not a 'you have to do this or else someone is going to die' type of situation."
Michael Woodard, a 62 year-old owner of a small real estate company, is looking for a plan on the exchange because his current plan is being discontinued. He wasn't able to sign into the website Tuesday, but got the plans and prices through individual insurance companies.
"You're going to hear screams out there," said the Bar Harbor resident. "Young people should be able to zip right through it, but I think people 50 plus who maybe are in rural areas without high speed Internet" could find the online sign-up process more challenging.
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