With deadline approaching, more Alaskans signing up for health insurance

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's Monique Martin helps Hoonah resident Jamie Paddock fill out an Indian Status Exemption form at the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Monique Martin helps Hoonah resident Jamie Paddock fill out an Indian Status Exemption form at the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Alaskans working to sign people up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act say they’re seeing a big increase in enrollments this month. Groups like the United Way and Enroll Alaska made the announcement at a press conference today in Anchorage. The boost comes as the March 31st open enrollment deadline approaches. Anyone who doesn’t have health insurance by that date will pay a penalty unless they qualify for an exemption.

In all of February, Enroll Alaska signed up a little more than 200 people for health insurance. In just the first week of March, they enrolled nearly that same number. Chief Operating Officer Tyann Boling is excited to see the pace picking up:

“We couldn’t be happier with how things have gone this month. It has been an incredible busy month for us and we see we’re going to have our largest enrollment month yet.”

Boling says the six month open enrollment period has not been easy. The healthcare.gov website was barely functional the first two months it was live. Boling says groups like hers lost momentum in those months that they may never recover. But she says it’s human nature to procrastinate and Enroll Alaska has the resources to help anyone who still wants to sign up:

“You know people will say, ‘I can wait another couple of weeks.’ And then they’re like, ‘oh my gosh, I need to make this happen.’ So some people were right there at October 1st and standing at our door at 7 a.m. and then there’s people waiting until right now to get through the door. However they get there… we just want them to get enrolled.”

And not everyone signing up this month is procrastinating. Susan Johnson is regional Director of the Health and Human Services Department. She says some people are still finding out about the benefits of the law. Johnson met a woman in Spokane recently who donated a kidney to her brother three decades ago and assumed she would be permanently excluded from health insurance because of her pre-existing condition:

“If you’ve been locked out, kept out, the door closed to you for over 30 years because you gave life to a family member, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that suddenly that door is open. It’s unbelievable. And that’s the power of this law.”

By the end of February, more than 6,500 Alaskans had signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov. Johnson is pleased with those numbers. She says Alaska is not an easy place to do outreach work on a complicated new law:

“Using an Olympic metaphor, you’re doing a triple sow cow with a wind of 70 miles per hour and the lights just went off and you’re still hoping to land that. So you have a huge degree of difficulty, we know that- no roads, often no electricity, no easy communication, off the grid with the computer.”

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been doing Affordable Care Act outreach events in rural areas of the state. Alaska Natives can file for an exemption from the individual mandate to buy insurance, because they qualify for healthcare from the Indian Health Service. But ANTHC’s Valerie Davidson says the organization is hoping some Alaska Natives will see the benefit to having insurance too, and may qualify for a substantial subsidy to help pay for it. She wants everyone to feel welcome asking questions about the law:

“Maybe English isn’t your first language-canrituq-it’s OK! Come on over anyway, we have people who will speak to you in any language you’re comfortable with so come on-taringan- we’ll understand.”

Open Enrollment closes for most Americans on March 31st and will reopen again on November 1st. But Alaska Natives and American Indians can continue signing up for insurance on the exchange all year long.

This story is part of a partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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