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Winter Storms Hinder Health Law Enrollment Efforts

By Tara Kulash, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 07--Winter weather is causing some woes for local navigators who are helping get people signed up for health insurance coverage through the federal marketplace.

Some locations that help consumers with the enrollment process have been forced to cancel events and office hours because of winter storms.

Under the Affordable Care Act, to avoid a tax penalty for not having health insurance, consumers must enroll by March 31.

The St. Louis Area Agency on Aging, a sign-up help location, closed its doors by 2 p.m. Tuesday because of snow.

Mark Smith, case management coordinator, said the agency has canceled at least one outreach fair because of hazardous weather. Other events have had a low turnout because the bitter cold has kept people away. Scheduling more events is difficult because it's hard to predict when a storm will crash the event.

"It's a bit of a weather roulette," he said.

At People's Health Centers, marketing director Carl Green said some enrollment fairs have been canceled because of storms. Traffic has been low this week because of the cold and snow, he said.

Grace Hill Health Centers has seen another kind of outreach effort affected.

Once a week, application counselors visit nearly 30 homes and businesses to offer information about the Affordable Care Act, said Yvonne Buhlinger, vice president for community health services.

At least two or three of those days have been canceled to keep counselors out of the extreme cold, she said. This week's visits were called off, too.

On Thursday, Daniel David, a certified application counselor at Grace Hill, said he had two no-shows for enrollment appointments. Patricia Lewis, 62, arrived for her appointment at noon. She said if it had been a day sooner, the unreliable roads would have kept her at home.

"When I was a little younger, I was a little more daring," she said. "Now I don't know at my age if there's anything worth having a car accident."

Primaris, a navigator group, closed its office in Columbia, Mo., on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the weather.

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But that didn't stop Jeremy Milarsky, navigator program manager. He said a handful of people contacted him Tuesday on Facebook to say they were stuck at home and had the time to shop for health insurance.

"I trudged out with my laptop and enrolled five people," he said.

And Milarsky has yet to cancel an event, even when a low turnout is expected.

"If we put ourselves on the hook for an enrollment event, we make every effort to do it."

Navigator group Bi-Lingual International Assistant Services has not called off any events either.

Cari Cluck, office manager, said sometimes people will call to reschedule an appointment or conduct it over the phone if they don't feel comfortable driving.

While the winter has hindered some outreach efforts, navigators and counselors said they don't think the overall impact will be significant.

Many people complete the online application on their own and simply call navigators and counselors with a few questions.

But for people who aren't tech savvy, canceled events and closed offices could be problematic.

Still, there might be a few warm days before the March 31 deadline.

___

(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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