Deadline for Affordable Care Act sign-up nearing

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This time of year, college students' thoughts turn to spring break or maybe March Madness basketball.

Bill England hopes to push health insurance into the mix.

The March 31 deadline for the uninsured to enroll in one of the Affordable Care Act's marketplace health plans is two weeks away, and it is Mr. England's goal to add on to the near-160,000 Pennsylvanians who have enrolled in a health plan so far.

"We're making good headway in terms of education, but we still know that 80 percent still don't understand there is assistance for the program," said Mr. England, Pennsylvania's state director for Enroll America, the nonprofit organization that has been encouraging the uninsured to sign up for a plan.

So far, he said, about 70 percent of those enrolling have been eligible for some level of subsidy and half are finding coverage for less than $100 a month.

But with the deadline fast approaching, it is the penalties for not enrolling -- not the subsidies -- that may draw the most attention.

Uninsured individuals who do not have coverage after March 31 face a tax penalty of either $95 per uninsured person or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater. Waivers have been extended to those who have had their previous health plans cancelled and those who can show they cannot afford to purchase coverage.

The "whichever is greater" clause is often overlooked but, according to a report by NPR, the penalties for higher-income individuals could top out at about $3,600 per person annually. Those penalties will grow in subsequent years.

Those who miss the deadline will have to wait for the next enrollment period, beginning Dec. 15, although there are exceptions made for "major life changes" such as a birth in the family, the loss of a job or a divorce.

To date, the majority of enrollees in Pennsylvania have been in the 35 to 60 year old age group, Mr. England said, while 28 percent are 19 to 34 years old. Nationally, lagging numbers of younger enrollees has caused both concern and criticism. The participation of this youthful and healthy group is needed to offset the cost of caring for the older and less healthy.

In the latest bid to reach out to the younger set, President Barack Obama appeared Tuesday to pitch the health insurance marketplace on comedian Zach Galifianakis' online show, "Between Two Ferns." The website Funny or Die reported it was a top referral source for sending people to the healthcare.gov website.

(The 6 ½-minute clip can be viewed at http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/18e820ec3f/between-two-ferns-with-zach-galifianakis-president-barack-obama).

Mr. England is optimistic about signing up younger Pennsylvanians, but he's taking no chances.

He has been organizing events at the Community College of Allegheny County, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and using social media to reach out to college students. "We're trying to be where they are."

In recent weeks, he said, the organization also has been reaching out by phone to some 50,000 Pennsylvanians of all ages who had expressed interest in the health exchange but haven't acted on it. "We know from following up with people that the more contact we're having with them, the more likely they are to take action and enroll."

Locally, the final big push starts this week with an "ACA Week of Action" event at the Turtle Creek Human Services Center on Monday. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto were expected to attend.

The hope is that the event and others in following days will spur enrollment, which much like public opinion on the Affordable Care Act itself, has been a mixed bag.

A Gallup Poll found the percentage of uninsured Americans continues to drop, from 17.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013 to 15.9 percent so far this year -- the lowest percentage since 2009. That would indicate some success on the health care law's part.

Yet enrollment in the health exchanges -- 4.2 million through February -- remains well short of the stated goal of 6 million to 7 million signups by March 31.

And a poll last week by CNN and ORC International researchers found that 39 percent of Americans support Obamacare, up from 35 percent in December, but 57 percent still said they oppose the law.

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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