Crowded Health Exchange Centers Turning Applicants Away

March 27, 2014

With only a few days left for Marylanders to begin the process of signing up for health insurance or risk a government fine, thousands of residents are seeking help with the state’s online marketplace — and often waiting hours, or even days, to get it.

A line of people in search of coverage began to form at 6 a.m. Wednesday outside the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services’ Silver Spring center, one of the region’s busiest enrollment operations.

When the doors opened at 8 a.m., more than 40 people rushed inside, following paper signs printed with the word “Obamacare” to the second floor and fighting to get their names on the sign-in sheet.

“I’m doing this because I have to, not because I’m getting sick,” said Jorge Olivares, 24, who was No. 15 in line after getting turned away Tuesday.

Olivares said that he tried to sign up on Maryland’s problem-plagued Web site earlier this week but that his application would not go through. His relatives have been urging him for weeks to enroll before the March 31 deadline, he said, and he regrets waiting until the last minute.

“I don’t want to pay a fine,” Olivares said, standing in line with a folder labeled “Taxes 2013” and a paperback that promised to teach him how to become rich. “I don’t even know what the fine is, but I don’t want to pay it.”

The center’s trained “navigators” can process only about 150 applications per day on their seven computers. That means the 10th person on the sign-up sheet will be seen about an hour after the place opens, while No. 30 could be there until past lunch. Those in the 50s and 60s were advised to cancel their plans for the day, and those numbering in the hundreds worried that they wouldn’t be seen before the center closed at 5 p.m.

Once the list nears 150, the center’s volunteers and staff member turn people away, encouraging them to try again earlier the next day. On Wednesday, that happened at 11 a.m.

Although Maryland officials have long expected a last-minute burst of applicants, some say the traffic this week has surprised them. The number of calls for assistance has more than doubled, along with the number of new accounts created.

Until this week, the Silver Spring center saw between 60 and 80 people most days. On Saturday, more than 250 people stopped by, said Lesly Martinez, the program manager.

Nationally, groups helping people sign up for insurance are seeing a surge of interest as the deadline looms. Some groups said they were almost completely booked with appointments through the end of the sign-up period.

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