COLUMBUS, Ohio — The pitch for health care coverage is being made at nail salons, pizzerias, mosques and even bars.
As the second enrollment period under President Barack Obama’s health care law begins, advocates are employing new tactics and expanding old ones to reach people who need insurance. Some groups are targeting populations they believe slipped through the cracks during the last enrollment period.
“We’ve had great success at laundromats,” said Robin Stockton, the navigator program director for the Center for Family Services, a nonprofit based in Camden, New Jersey.
The informal chat between wash-and-dry cycles can pique interest and lead some customers to call their hotline for more information, she said.
“Typically,” she said, “the question you get back is: `Is this that Obamacare thing?'”
Open enrollment started Saturday and runs until Feb. 15. The HealthCare.gov website, where people can sign up and search for coverage, appeared to be running smoothly Saturday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell tweeted that the website opened shortly after 1 a.m., with more than 23,000 people submitting applications within the first eight hours. She said 1.2 million unique visitors looked at coverage using the site’s window-shopping tool in the last week.
In Washington state, though, the health care exchange shut down after the first few hours of open enrollment as state officials and software engineers tried to resolve a problem with tax credit calculations.
The Obama administration aims to have 9.1 million paying customers enrolled in 2015. That’s well below the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office had projected.
In Philadelphia, Enroll America organizer Neil Rickett is armed with a list of 500 bars and restaurants as he makes his way through downtown, popping in and out of eateries. He approaches bartenders, wait staff and other service industry workers whose high turnover and odd hours often result in a lack of health coverage. He gets workers’ contact information and sometimes schedules appointments to meet with them.
“By going to them, we’re upping our chance of getting the people we missed or didn’t get enrolled last time,” Rickett said.
In New Jersey, Stockton’s nonprofit is among the community-based groups guiding people through the enrollment process. When they aren’t taking appointments, the 17 navigators take their enrollment message on the road.
The helpers set up tables of brochures at festivals and malls. They make cold calls to pizza parlors, Chinese restaurants and other small businesses where they sometimes post information on bulletin boards. And with encrypted tablets and mobile offices, they have signed people up for coverage at churches, synagogues, mosques and a Buddhist temple.
“We’re very flexible about the times that we can go out and make it convenient,” Stockton said.
The organization’s contact information in a newspaper caught the attention of freelance writer Susan Van Dongen Grigsby, who has COBRA coverage through her husband’s former employer, though it expires next year.
“I don’t want to find myself without any coverage a few months from now,” said Van Dongen Grigsby, 55, of Bordentown, New Jersey.
Changing insurance has been on her mind since her husband retired in 2012. She pays $689 a month and hopes to find a cheaper plan. She said that she resisted the marketplace last year because she liked her COBRA coverage and that hearing horror stories about the website didn’t help.
“I just would like someone walk to me through it and see what the options are,” said Van Dongen Grigsby, who has an appointment this month with Stockton’s group.
One organization in northeast Ohio plans to host information sessions with salon owners and their employees to help enroll Asian-Americans in coverage.
Cathy Vue, an assistant manager of Asian Services in Action Inc., said the organization also is putting together a free calendar for Asian groups that will include Affordable Care Act information in their native language. Each page of the 12-month calendar will feature a picture of a community member – Nepali, Korean, Hmong, Burmese – wearing native clothing.
“This is kind of a way that we’re hoping will get the community involved,” Vue said. “A lot of times they feel invisible so to have that visibility, I think, is really powerful.”
Word of mouth from a client led personal trainer Arthur Hunter to seek enrollment help from The Voice of Your Customer, a minority-owned business in Cincinnati that has counselors assisting with sign-ups. Hunter has health insurance through his wife’s employer, though the two are getting a divorce. He hoped to get his coverage lined up Saturday.
“I don’t want to have a day go by without having it,” said Hunter, 47. “Health and fitness is so important to me – that for me, one of the most important things is to have that health care coverage.”
Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, said reaching the uninsured naturally will get harder from year to year as more people get coverage. Part of the challenge this period, she said, is for organizers not just to connect people to health insurance but also to make sure those enrolled keep their coverage and make any necessary updates.
“This year, we really have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Filipic said.
Associated Press writer Sean Carlin in Philadelphia contributed to this report.