By Tara Bannow • The Bulletin

With the deadline to sign up for health insurance coverage in 2014 fast approaching, advocates and insurers are in the final weeks of what’s in some cases an uphill battle to convince people to buy policies.

In Oregon, the launch and subsequent flop of the state’s health insurance exchange may be largely to blame for January 2014 enrollments into private plans falling more than 75 percent short of projections made a year earlier. But even as the federal government, state governments, nonprofit organizations, insurers and media bombard Americans with information about the Affordable Care Act and its insurance mandate, many still are in the dark about important facets of the law.

In Oregon, the upcoming March 31 open enrollment deadline could be extended by one month if the federal government approves the state’s request to do so. The Oregon Legislature approved a bill last week that permitted the request to move forward, but it’s unclear when the federal government will respond.

Nationally, only 24 percent of people surveyed in February could correctly provide this year’s open enrollment deadline of March 31, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That’s on par with what PacificSource Health Plans representatives have seen as they host 128 public events in Oregon, Idaho and Montana to help people learn their options and enroll in plans.

Many people who are uninsured think if they get into an accident or come down with a serious health condition, they’ll just be able to buy coverage then, said Colleen Thompson, PacificSource’s director of marketing and communications.

“What they’re not understanding is that the open enrollment period is only a certain part of the year when you can enroll in coverage,” she said.

Those who miss the March 31 deadline and don’t qualify for an exemption to the mandate won’t be able to buy insurance until fall for coverage beginning January 2015 at the earliest. They’ll also be subject to the ACA’s penalty next year of $95 per person or 1 percent of their income, whichever amount is higher.

“There’s a big gap where people just won’t be able to sign up for coverage if they suddenly want or need it,” Thompson said.

In addition to the nearly 39,000 people who enrolled in private plans through Cover Oregon by the beginning of March, another roughly 30,000 people have submitted applications and received their eligibility determinations but have yet to enroll in policies through the exchange, said Cover Oregon spokesperson Michael Cox. Those are the people Cover Oregon staff members are targeting in these final weeks of phone calls, emails and postcards, he said.

“It’s a very important decision and some folks are taking their time to get it done,” Cox said.

At beginning of April, Cover Oregon officials project 64,400 people will have enrolled in private plans through the exchange, wrapping up Cover Oregon enrollments for 2014.

Enroll America, a nonprofit that’s working to get more people enrolled in insurance, is in high gear this month, sending its volunteers to community health clinics, going door-to-door and making phone calls to make sure the uninsured are aware of the upcoming deadline and the information they need. The organization is targeting the 11 states in the U.S. with the highest rates of uninsured (minus California and New York, both of which have strong state-level programs), so Oregon is not on its list.

Like other groups, Enroll America has found that the biggest point of confusion among the public is the open enrollment deadline. After that, it’s the tax subsidies.

For many people, the reason they’re uninsured is that they’ve tried to find affordable plans in the past and couldn’t. Enroll America volunteers are trying to help people learn about the financial assistance available to them, said Justin Nisly, Enroll America’s national press secretary.

“For them, they hear about the marketplaces, they decided it’s something they can’t afford and aren’t going to check it out,” he said. “We’re focused on making people aware that tax credits are available.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,