CHICAGO — With the final deadline for health insurance sign-ups just days away, Illinois officials are planning late-night enrollment events at hospitals, a library and at Ann Sather, a popular Chicago restaurant known for Swedish pancakes.
Enrollment counselors will help people sign up until midnight at events in the Chicago area, Mattoon and Rockford on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. At a call center in Chicago, operators will answer questions during those last three days from all around the state until midnight. Meanwhile, a federal call center is open 24 hours a day.
The scramble to reach procrastinators — including a "last call" public service announcement from President Barack Obama — may push the president's home state to a federal goal of 143,000 enrollees for 2014 health coverage, or it may not.
That won't be known until mid-April when the Obama administration is expected to release figures for first-year enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. Even then, it may not be clear how many Illinois residents paid their first monthly premiums and were actually covered.
For now, Illinois officials are optimistic — and busy. They say they're on track to meet the goal.
"We're making sure Illinois consumers have every single opportunity to enroll before the deadline," said Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois, the state's online insurance marketplace. On Monday, the Illinois marketplace help desk received 7,647 calls, the highest one-day volume ever, she said.
Koehler said she expects young adults to be the toughest holdouts. So far, about one in four Illinois enrollees has been in the 18- to 34-year-old age group. "We've really ramped up our messaging to that demographic, making sure they're aware of the free help available across the state," Koehler said.
Meeting the deadline means avoiding financial penalties on 2014 federal taxes. After Monday's deadline, only people with limited special circumstances, such as a divorce or a move to a new state, and low-income people who qualify for Medicaid will be able to get coverage that meets the federal law's requirements.
People without insurance can be fined either 1 percent of their income or $95, whichever is greater, when they file their 2014 federal taxes.
"Many people are unaware of the March 31 deadline and what it means to them," said Kurt Kossen, vice president for retail marketing for Health Care Service Corporation, the operator of Blue Cross plans in Illinois and four other states. After March 31, he said, some consumers might be eligible to purchase a short-term temporary policy, but it likely would have skimpier coverage and the consumer would still have to pay a tax penalty.
Others are responding to the tick-tock of time running out, he said. "We've seen an increase in activity in the last couple of weeks," Kossen said. "Clearly there are some individuals who understand it and are taking action."
The White House has said it won't push back the deadline to sign up for coverage, but if someone has already started an application, they will get some extra time to finish it.
Koehler said people shouldn't wait until Monday to get started shopping on the health insurance website or to get help from an insurance broker, agent or enrollment counselor. Many people are surprised, she said, by how many insurance plans they need to review. Most areas in Illinois have 30 or more insurance plans being sold.
"We want them to know if they want time to consider their options to talk with family, they shouldn't wait until the last minute," Koehler said.