Kansas residents rush to meet health care deadline

? Counselors dealth with a crush of late requests for help from Kansas consumers trying to navigate the federal government’s online health insurance marketplace on Monday, the deadline for signing up for coverage.

But the Republican-dominated Legislature still was looking for ways to resist the 4-year-old federal health care overhaul championed by Democratic President Barack Obama.

The law requires most Americans to have health insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty, and consumers had until Monday to submit applications for coverage through online marketplaces. Like many other GOP-controlled states, Kansas refused to set up its own marketplace or to partner with the federal government in running it.

And HealthCare.gov was out of service for nearly four hours Monday morning, complicating enrollment for people pushing the deadline. But millions of people nationwide also were potentially eligible for extensions, including those who began enrolling by the deadline but weren’t able to finish.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had projected that 53,000 Kansas residents would enroll in coverage through the marketplace by the end of March. It said about 29,000 had done so by the end of February.

In Lawrence, Heartland Community Health Center’s health insurance marketplace specialists worked hard in the days leading up to the enrollment deadline. They have run into trouble with the website lately but, as of last week, helped nearly 200 people select plans on the marketplace.

“We have been really busy over the last week or two,” said Heartland spokesman Sean Hatch. “Our navigator has even been taking appointments for evenings and weekends because she has had to fit so many people in. We have also been booking appointments with our certified application counselors, who had not been as active in enrolling people before last week.”

Paige Ashley, a navigator for the Shawnee County Health Agency in Topeka, said its eight counselors — or navigators — helped several hundred people in that few days before Monday’s deadline. The health agency had navigators at the Topeka public library Monday to assist consumers, though it was not taking new appointments and directing last-minute help-seekers to the federal government’s website.

“We’re booked solid with appointments,” Ashley said.

But Braxton Rodriguez, a 19-year-old Topeka resident, left the library frustrated, still unable to verify an online identification after two weeks of trying. A part-time Wal-Mart worker, he didn’t have health insurance and wanted to avoid the tax penalty.

“I’m not impressed with it at all,” Rodriguez said of the federal government’s website.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislative leaders have criticized the health care overhaul over the rocky fall rollout of the online marketplace, and they view the law’s requirements as burdensome and likely to harm the economy.

The House last week approved a bill to bring Kansas into a compact with other states seeking to exempt themselves from the federal law’s requirements. An obscure provision in the U.S. Constitution requires congressional approval for multistate compacts, but doesn’t give the president a role, making the idea attractive for some critics of the health care overhaul. The Houston, Texas group pushing the idea says eight other states have passed similar laws, including Missouri and Texas.

Earlier this month, the Senate approved a measure to require health care navigators to register with the attorney general’s office by July 2015, pay a $100 annual fee, submit their fingerprints and undergo background checks. Kansas has about 170 navigators.