DC residents rush to sign up for health coverage

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Local,DC

WASHINGTON (AP) — District of Columbia residents who waited until the last minute to sign up for health insurance coverage under the new federal health care program were waiting on hold with the city's call center and lining up to enroll in person Monday, the last day to join without paying a tax penalty.

As of Monday afternoon, there were thousands of people who still hadn't enrolled, said Mila Kofman, executive director of the district's health insurance exchange.

Many of those signing up at the last minute included Latino and Ethiopian immigrants, and some required the services of translators, Kofman said. Others, she said, were just waiting until the last minute.

"The last-minute shoppers, I would say here at least, are pretty ethnically diverse, and the volumes are just very high," Kofman said.

Before its health exchange launched on Oct. 1, the district had about 36,000 uninsured residents, or roughly 6 percent of the population — one of the lowest rates of uninsured in the country, Kofman said. That left the district in a better position than many states to handle the deadline crunch, but Kofman stressed that her work would not be done until every last person was insured.

The district joined President Barack Obama's administration and several other states in offering a grace period into April for people who start applications but don't finish them by midnight. That includes those who show up to enroll in person but don't make it to the front of the line, or those who call to sign up but are unable to wait on hold. Wait times were averaging around 30 minutes on Monday, Kofman said, and the call center was handling 1,500 calls a day as of Friday, more than triple the rate from two weeks earlier.

Those who fail to sign up will only have to sign a statement saying they tried to enroll in order to avoid the penalty.

The district offers Medicaid coverage for people with incomes up to twice the federal poverty level. As of Monday morning, more than 16,000 people who applied for coverage were found to be eligible for Medicaid, Kofman said. More than 8,600 people had selected a health plan through the individual marketplace, but it wasn't clear how many of those had been uninsured previously, she said. Some were forced to buy new insurance plans because carriers no longer offered their old plans under the new health care law.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

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