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Glitch in new health insurance marketplace stalls enrollment of uninsured in Charlotte

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North Carolina’s new online health insurance marketplace opened Tuesday, but the website promptly stalled, and some consumers resorted to filing applications the old-fashioned way – on paper.

Staffers at N.C. MedAssist, one of three Charlotte agencies that received federal grants to help consumers enroll, tried to sign on before 9 a.m., but they didn’t get far.

“We have a lot of visitors on our site right now…,” said the screen message at www.healthcare.gov, the centerpiece of the federal Affordable Care Act. “Please wait until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience!”

Sorien Schmidt, N.C. director of Enroll America, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to enroll the uninsured, tried to reassure so-called navigators and application counselors that this was just a temporary glitch.

“No one, not even Apple or Microsoft, releases software, much less a website for the entire nation, that works perfectly on the first release. ... I think we just stay calm.”

In anticipation of problems, Charlotte agencies had planned to take the first day slowly. MedAssist and Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont each booked only three appointments.

“We’re trying to do a slower roll-out and make sure that we really understand the process and are giving the best possible assistance to the consumers,” said Legal Services lawyer Madison Hardee.

Later in the day, Hardee called the federal hotline and was told the site might not be working until the end of the week.

So, when Lisa Knight, 52, arrived for her afternoon appointment, Hardee helped her fill out a paper application. They hope to hear back in a couple of weeks whether Knight and her husband qualify for premium subsidies that would make insurance affordable.

The Charlotte couple’s income is about $15,700 a year, which puts them just over the federal poverty level. They would have qualified for Medicaid if North Carolina had not declined Medicaid expansion, the part of the health overhaul intended to cover the poorest of the poor. But they still might qualify for a subsidy, Hardee said.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” said Knight, who is uninsured and takes medicines for emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis pain, depression and anxiety. Her prescriptions cost more than $150 a month. Another drug, Spiriva, prescribed for her breathing problems costs $500 a month. “I have quit taking it because I can’t afford it,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”

At C.W. Williams Community Health Center, the other Charlotte agency receiving federal money to help with enrollment, officials held a celebratory news conference on the lawn outside the Wilkinson Boulevard clinic. About 50 people cheered at the mention of the law commonly called “Obamacare.”

“It is a good day,” said State Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Charlotte Democrat and a registered nurse. “It is a good day when no one in the state has to die for lack of health insurance.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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