MANATEE -- Only a trickle of people had been seeking help from application counselors at Manatee County Rural Health Services after the federal health exchange marketplace enrollment period opened in October.
But that trickle finally has begun to surge.
Counselors received nearly triple the number of calls and in-person visits last week compared with the first week of December. The number of callers climbed from 57 to 155; in-person visits rose from 26 to 67, Rural Health officials reported.
Since October, 37 people completed enrollment, meaning they paid their first insurance premium. Half enrolled last week.
"That's why we're encouraged. All of those numbers are pointing in the right direction," said William Colgate, chief performance officer at Manatee County Rural Health Services.
To help people meet a Dec. 23 deadline for coverage starting Jan. 1, the health services agency will offer extended hours at its health and community centers through Thursday. On Wednesday, application counselors will be at North County Health Center in Sarasota, and on Thursday at Southeast Healthcare Center in Bradenton.
The enrollment period to sign up for a health plan
through the exchange has been extended to March 31. But only by enrolling in a plan and paying the first premium by Monday will mean coverage starts Jan. 1. That date is important for people with existing health plans ending Dec. 31 who don't want a gap in health coverage.
Colgate said his agency hasn't been told the time frame between enrollment and the start of coverage for those signing up for plans after Monday.
Manatee County Rural Health Services received a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to train application counselors and make them available at eight health centers in Manatee.
Counselors were helping people fill out paper applications when the federal marketplace website was struggling after its rocky debut. But they now are working with enrollments directly online, said Colgate.
"The website has been performing fantastically," he said.
The process of getting health insurance through the marketplace starts with comparing available plans for premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits. Premium subsidies on a sliding scale will be available for people with incomes up to 400 percent above poverty levels. That limit is about $46,000 for an individual or $94,000 for a family of four.
People with incomes below the poverty level aren't eligible for subsidies on the exchange because the health care law was designed to cover them by expanding Medicaid. But not all states, including Florida, have opted to expand Medicaid.
Calling for an appointment is recommended for knowing what documents to bring. Proof of citizenship is required, along with proof of income to qualify for subsidies.
"We accept walk-ins but everyone's situation varies. Calling and being told what documents to bring means the process can all be done at one time," said Colgate.
Call 855-253-9098 to make an appointment or information about enrollment. Specialists are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at all seven locations. Information also is available at mcrhs.org and questions can be emailed to marketplace
Wednesday: North County Health Center, 1949 Northgate Blvd., Sarasota; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Thursday: Southeast Healthcare Center, 919 53rd Ave. E., Bradenton; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.