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New Mexicans slow to enroll in health insurance plans under federal law

By BARRY MASSEY,  Associated Press

SANTA FE, New Mexico — New Mexico was expected to fall short of its goal of enrolling 40,000 to 50,000 people in health insurance plans in the initial phase of President Barack Obama's health care law, a top official with the state's insurance exchange said Monday.

New Mexico officials made a final push to encourage individuals to sign up for taxpayer-subsidized health plans offered through an online federal marketplace before a midnight Monday open enrollment deadline.

New Mexico has relied on the federally operated exchange website to enroll individuals. A state-run online exchange will take over that task later this year.

By mid-March, about 18,700 individuals had signed up for plans, according to J.R. Damron, chairman of the board that oversees New Mexico's health insurance exchange. That's up from an enrollment of about 15,000 at the end of February.

"We're definitely not where we want to be enrollment wise," Damron said Monday. "I think realistically it's probably about 36,000 or 35,000 what we would like to have enrolled."

Damron said the state has faced problems getting timely data on enrollment. The board has relied on some information insurers provide to the state insurance regulator, but it's unlikely the federal government will release an enrollment update to the state until mid-April, he said.

About 40 people showed up at an enrollment event Monday at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque. There was a bank of computers and people with laptops to assist with enrollment applications.

"Obviously, today being the deadline it's a little slower process because the website is moving slowly and lots of people have lots of questions," said Marshall Martinez of Equality New Mexico, a group hosting the event. "We're really excited about the turnout. We didn't know what to expect."

New Mexicans have been slow to enroll, Damron said, in part because computer glitches plagued the federal exchange web site when it started last October. Website problems Monday created delays as people rushed to meet the enrollment deadline.

Enrollment also has been a challenge because of the state's large rural population.

The state exchange postponed much of its marketing until December because of what Damron described as the "dysfunctional" federal online system.

"We feel like we're just kind hitting our stride at the present time," he said, noting that calls for the state exchange's toll-free telephone center have increased five-fold in the past week.

The state exchange's board of directors, he said, is exploring whether the federal government may permit a longer open enrollment period in New Mexico.

The Obama administration already has announced it will give extra time for certain people across the country to sign up for taxpayer-subsidized health coverage. That includes those who've started an application, but weren't able to finish before Monday's deadline.

New Mexico initially set a target of enrolling about 80,000 people in insurance plans through the exchange, but the state governing board later trimmed that to 40,000 to 50,000.

"They may get that in 2014, but they're certainly not going to get it by the end of this enrollment period," said Barbara Webber, executive director of Health Action New Mexico.

However, she optimistic that enrollment will continue to climb.

"We're going to learn a lot from what we did this first round in how to do it better," Webber said.

The state has had more success in enrolling low-income residents in Medicaid. As part of the federal health care overhaul, New Mexico expanded who qualified for the health care program and more than 100,000 have enrolled since October.



Follow Barry Massey at . Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.

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