As the March 31 deadline to sign up for a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act draws near, millions of Americans who had put off enrolling in a state or federal health care exchange have rushed to register.
By the end of February, Covered California, the state-run health care exchange, had registered 880,000 individual plans after four months of open enrollment, according to a press release from the exchange. That breaks down to about 220,000 for each month the system has been up and running.
On March 14, it was announced that the state had broken the 1 million mark, and by the end of March 15 -- just one day later -- Covered California had logged 18,315 additional plans.
The last-minute dash to sign up for health care has put stress on the system, according to Larry Hicks, a spokesman from Covered California. Phone wait times are currently as long as 30 minutes, Hicks said, and during peak enrollment hours, CoveredCa.com can run sluggishly.
Wait times are expected to get longer, Hicks said. "We do anticipate that here, in the final days, the volume will increase." Representatives say they are encouraging people to enroll as soon as possible and to consider the multitude of options available to sign up.
"There are many paths to the final destination of getting enrolled in health insurance," Hicks said.
In addition to CoveredCa.com, and the enrollment hotline -- 800-300-1506 -- people can also find local enrollment counselors and insurance agents that can help with the enrollment process. To find a person to help with the process nearby, Hicks said, go to CoveredCa.com and click the "Find Local Help" button.
Mountain View residents can also get help by calling or visiting the North County Social Service Agency's office. Denise Boland, director of Santa Clara County's Department of Employment and Benefits Services, said her office can answer people's questions and help locals in the ACA -- also known as Obamacare.
In fact, it may be quicker to sign up for a plan through the county. "It is sometimes faster to talk to your local county than to talk to Covered California," Boland said.
There are multiple methods for signing up through the county: in person (an option Covered California does not offer), over the phone, on the county's web portal or by filling out the required forms and either mailing them in or turning them in at a county social services office.
The North County Social Services Agency office is located at 1330 W. Middlefield Road. It's open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The agency's phone number, which can be accessed during business hours, is 408-758-3800. The agency's website for signing up for health care is mybenefitscalwin.org.
Beyond the possibility that her agency might be quicker than Covered California, there are other reasons to consider enrolling in the new national insurance system at the county office, Boland said.
Boland said her staff is trained to determine whether individuals are qualified for other county services, such as the MediCal program, CalFresh (food stamps), and CalWORKs, a state-run welfare program.
Plenty of locals already know they can turn to Boland's agency for help. Since the first day of the year, Boland said, her "offices have seen an incredible surge in people coming in."
Many people have been asking officials at El Camino Hospital for help, as well, according to Brenda Taussig, government and community relations manager for the hospital.
In an effort to educate the community, El Camino held an event in February focused on the Affordable Care Act and Covered California, Taussig said. "We are also actively assisting uninsured patients, such as those who come in for emergency care, to get coverage," Taussig said.