The state health insurance exchange program has enrolled 36,000 Oregonians since launching Oct. 1

by: JASON CHANEY - The Crook County Health Department has helped people enroll via paper packets as the Cover Oregon website is being fixed.

About three months have passed since Cover Oregon launched and while the program is working better than before, struggles with enrollment still remain.

According to the latest update furnished by the state's insurance exchange, nearly 3,500 people have been enrolled since the Oct. 1 launch date, and paper applications are being processed more quickly than before.

In early December, Cover Oregon reported that nearly 3,500 had enrolled in a health insurance plan. One month later, that total has reached about 36,000. Of that total, about 12,000 obtained a private plan while the remaining 24,000 enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan.

Locally, enrollment has also gained some momentum. Crook County Health Department staff has helped about 200 people complete paper enrollment packets.

"A lot of people just came and got their packets from us (after the exchange launched)," said Emma Reynolds, program coordinator for the Health Department.

The paper applications, which total 19 pages and vary in complexity depending on household, had to be mailed or faxed in, and people had to wait as long as three weeks for a response.

More recently, they have guided a few people through online enrollment, an option that only recently became available.

"We have done a couple (enrollments) on the exchange," Reynolds said.

Regina Sanchez, whom the health department recently hired as their Cover Oregon assistor, said that the online enrollment enables people to instantly find out what they qualify for as opposed to waiting for a reply in the mail.

Roger Peer of Country Financial has also helped people fill out paper applications, and has assisted people after they find out what coverage they are eligible for. So far, the people he has assisted seem bewildered by the process.

"They are not sure what is going on," he observed.

As an example of the confusion, Peer noted that many of the people he spoke to applied for Tier 4 coverage, the least expensive option, but later learned they do not qualify for that tier.

Reynolds and Sanchez have seen similar reactions at the health department, but not everyone is upset with the situation.

"There are people who are really frustrated, and people who are really happy that they have the opportunity (to purchase health insurance)," Reynolds said.

The sluggish start Cover Oregon has experienced recently forced them to extend their application deadline for those wishing to obtain coverage by Jan. 1. Applicants were given until Jan. 6, instead of Dec. 27, to submit their insurance plan selections for coverage effective Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has introduced legislation to ensure that Oregonians who try to sign up for Cover Oregon can get coverage for the entire month of January, even if their information is not processed until as late as Jan. 31.

"No Oregonian should go without health coverage through no fault of their own," Merkley said. "Oregonians who have had difficulty accessing insurance through Cover Oregon should still be able to get January coverage so they can avoid a gap in coverage."

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