CLEARWATER — The first time Annie Quarles tried to sign up through the health insurance marketplace in October, she spent more than two hours on the phone just to get her application in, much less pick a plan.
But when she went to see Anne Fulcher at Margaret J. Weston Community Health Center on Friday, “she just breezed through” and got her enrolled, said Quarles, 58, of Edgefield.
She likes the family plan and the $268 a month premium, which includes dental. It is offered by a nonprofit, member-owned cooperative and is available only in South Carolina.
After a flurry of activity toward the end of last year for those who wanted insurance coverage to start Jan. 1, there is increasing activity as the government Web site is working well and the March 31 deadline looms for the end of the open enrollment period.
In a poll released last week by Gallup, 56 percent of the uninsured said they plan to enroll through the marketplaces, up from 50 percent in December, and 38 percent said they will pay the penalty for not having health insurance. Of those who say they will enroll, 21 percent said they have yet to visit the Web site or take any steps toward enrolling.
Quarles said some of it is probably apprehension. For people like her who are not good with computers, it can be a little daunting.
“I know people like that,” she said. “They’re scared to make that step.”
A lady at church told her about Fulcher.
“Thank God they told me that, because I still wouldn’t have signed up,” Quarles said.
As a home health aide, she said she does not have access to health insurance through her job and has not been getting care.
“I haven’t been for my yearly exam or my mammogram or just regular doctor’s appointments because they cost $100 out of your pocket,” Quarles said. Now that she has signed up, she will make those appointments “as soon as it kicks in,” she said.
That is the rewarding part for Fulcher, who was uninsured for two years when she went back to school and during that time broke her arm.
“I was treated so badly by a doctor’s office staff member because I didn’t have insurance that I vowed that for the rest of my career I was going to be working with the uninsured and underserved in health care,” she said.
She knows from personal experience that it is difficult for working people to get things done during the workday, so the clinic has added Saturday enrollment from 8 a.m. to noon. Businesses with more than five employees who want to sign up can call Fulcher to schedule a time for her to visit them, she said. Sometimes she heads out herself, as she did during a recent trip to a nearby McDonald’s.
“I enrolled all of the staff,” Fulcher said. “It was such a big hit that I’m going back.”
She is also having success finding good deals for a group that insurers desperately want to reach: those 30 and younger who are relatively healthy. A 27-year-old friend of her son needed insurance and got a Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan with a premium for less than $30 a month after subsidies.
“The rates for young people are very, very reasonable,” Fulcher said. A couple in their late 20s did even better: Her premium on a Humana plan in Augusta is 38 cents a month and his is $18 a month after subsidies, Fulcher said.
“And everybody was on the provider list,” she said.
Quarles went with Consumers Choice Health Plan, a nonprofit that is one of 24 state-based Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans that could be created under the Affordable Care Act.
After the first month of enrollment, 65 percent had chosen Consumers Choice, said Adrian Grimes, its vice president of corporate communications. That rate has gone down some, though she could not disclose actual numbers.
Those signing up might be motivated by the bottom line and not know it’s a different kind of insurance company, she said.
“Obviously our prices are very competitive,” Grimes said. “We’re proud of that.”
When it released the numbers of enrollees for the first three months, the Department of Health and Human Services also said how many had filled out an application and were eligible to enroll. In South Carolina, there were 74,162 eligible to enroll in a plan but less than a third actually chose one by Dec. 28.
“Based on that pipeline number, that tells you there are a lot of people that are online, they just haven’t punched the button yet for a specific company,” Grimes said. “Now that people know that (the Web site) does work, I do think we’ll see an uptick. And I think we’ll see a real uptick as we get closer to March 31.”
Fulcher said her clinic is booked through next week and the calls keep coming in. That’s why it is adding a third person to help with the coming tide of people who want to enroll.
“We anticipate the next two months to be rather hectic,” Fulcher said.