TAMPA — While weight lifters huffed and puffed in the weight room and seniors stretched in the auditorium, dozens more Tampa area residents focused on their health in a different way Monday at the Hunt Center in Al Lopez Park: They enrolled for insurance on deadline day for the Affordable Care Act.
Glitches continued to plague the website on Monday. The Department of Health and Human Services said more than 125,000 people were attempting to use the site at the same time during a midday peak, but the agency tweeted, “Don't worry, if you're still trying to get signed up by the end of today, we'll make sure you still get covered.”
By midnight, 6.5 million people were expected to be enrolled, close to the Obama administration's goal of 7 million.
The Hunt Center was one of several community spaces open around the area on Monday to help people sign up in the national health insurance marketplace before the midnight deadline. Those who failed to secure health insurance face a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their income.
“This has been so meaningful for families in Florida, because we had such a high rate of uninsureds compared to other states,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa who visited the Hunt Center shortly after its opening.
Citing census data, Kaiser Health News reported last fall that Florida had the second-highest rate of uninsured residents younger than 65. That was 3.8 million people, about a quarter of the state's population.
Among them was Hilda Fuentes, 31, a Tampa mother of one who cleans offices. She had registered on the website earlier, but said Monday she was at the Hunt Center to complete the process.
“I don't have anything” in terms of insurance, she said. “Every time I went to the doctor, I had to pay. Thank God I've never had to go to the hospital.”
Fuentes was joined Monday morning by about two dozen area residents who faced wait times of up to 90 minutes to speak with a marketplace navigator.
Also there was Roy Ripley, 62, who recently retired from construction work and isn't yet eligible for Medicare. A family member helped him register on the marketplace, but he said the offers he received were all prohibitively expensive. On Monday, he was hoping a navigator could determine why he wasn't getting affordable quotes.
“I hope they can help me,” Ripley said. “I don't want to get fined or anything. Right now I don't have anything.”
Navigator sites were also bustling elsewhere around Tampa Bay.
At the Pinellas County Health Department's information booth at the St. Petersburg main library, those looking to make the insurance deadline asked questions that couldn't be answered from various government websites.
John Folger, 64, hired a professional insurance adviser to look into his coverage options several weeks before the deadline, but ran into problems. A financial consultant who runs his own business, Folger's income comes in peaks and valleys, he said.
“The last couple years I haven't made much money so I'm somewhere in no-man's land, but I'm getting older, stuff's starting to break, and I need insurance,” he said. “The funny thing is I've been a Republican for 40 years, and so many think this is the worst thing that's ever happened in God's creation. But when you do your research, you see it's helping millions of people. It's lunacy not to do something to help the millions of people that are still uninsured, and I think this is a very logical way to do it.”
Phillip Weens, 27, visited the health care website toward the beginning of the year to get a feel for what everyone was talking about, but didn't pay too much attention because he was covered through his job at Florida State University. Since then, however, he's quit his job and moved to St. Petersburg in hopes of making a career change.
“I don't want to face the fine, so this is my last chance to get some information and get my questions answered,” said Weens, a recent FSU graduate. “I was never too concerned with my insurance until I graduated, and when I was employed my job took care of all that. I never really got that sick, and I rarely go to the hospital, so I never really worried about it. But now I have to start paying more attention.”
The national health insurance marketplace got off to a rough start in October, and there were signs that the last-minute deluge also taxed the system.
The health care website was down early Monday, with an Obama administration spokesman saying a overnight maintenance window had to be extended.
By midday, another glitch was preventing users from creating new accounts. HHS's Aaron Albright said people with existing accounts were able to continue to work on their applications.
Monday afternoon, HHS and the website tweeted: “We know many of you are working hard to finish enrolling in a health plan. Sometimes despite your best efforts, you may run into delays caused by heavy traffic to www.HealthCare.gov or our call center, maintenance periods, or other special situations that are preventing you from finishing the process on time. Don't worry, if you're still trying to get signed up by the end of today, we'll make sure you still get covered.”