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Millions on the sidelines for big health care push

Tuesday - 3/25/2014, 3:10am  ET

Richard Kelleher, 64, stands outside a restaurant Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Phoenix. President Barack Obama and a phalanx of advocacy groups, insurance companies and volunteers are scrambling to spread the word about HealthCare.gov as the deadline nears. But even well-informed Americans can be stymied by the complexities of the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Matt York)

CONNIE CASS
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Alan Thacker wants health coverage, but he can't get help in his home state of Georgia. Mary Moscarello Gutierrez no longer can afford insurance in New Jersey. Justin Thompson of Utah refuses to be forced into the president's health law.

Millions of people in the United States will remain uninsured despite this week's final, frenzied push to sign them up under the health law. Their reasons are all over the map.

Across the country, many of the uninsured just don't know much about the health overhaul and its March 31 deadline for enrolling in plans that can yield big discounts, researchers say.

An Associated Press-GfK poll found that only one-fourth of the uninsured had tried to sign up through the state or federal insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges, by late January. If they don't enroll in time, many will face a fine and be locked out of the subsidized plans until next year.

President Barack Obama and a phalanx of advocacy groups, insurance companies and volunteers are scrambling to spread the word about HealthCare.gov as the deadline dangles.

But the complexities of the Affordable Care Act can stymie even the well-informed.

New York tap dancer Jessica Wilt just missed being one of them.

She lost her health coverage last summer when she was laid off as education director of a small dance company. It wasn't easy being uninsured -- when Wilt slashed her fingertip slicing lemons one night, she avoided an emergency room bill by sealing the cut herself with a super glue.

Wilt, 37, was eager to enroll in a marketplace plan but found the premiums too costly for a freelancer doing arts-related jobs. That would have been the end of it, if the accountant doing her income taxes last week hadn't prodded Wilt to try again. She went online, realized she had erred in projecting her 2014 earnings and qualified for a much bigger subsidy.

"I'm feeling a little embarrassed that I interpreted things the wrong way the first time," said Wilt, who signed up Friday for a midlevel "silver" plan for $150 per month, a price that reflects a $224 tax credit. "It just goes to show how confusing all this is."

There's a story for everyone who will remain on the sidelines of Obama's big enrollment push.

These are some of them:

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THEY CAN'T GET IN

Richard Kelleher, long-term unemployed and uninsured, spent five months sorting through the confusion in Phoenix. He tried to sign up for a marketplace plan and then the state's newly expanded Medicaid program, getting shutdown online, at state offices and by phone. At the same time, he was piling up employment rejections.

Kelleher, 64, felt invisible.

On Friday he got a letter accepting him into Medicaid -- and an entry-level job offer the same day.

That puts his insurance situation in limbo for now. He thinks his earnings will end his Medicaid eligibility. But Kelleher says he's grateful for "an opportunity to at least be somewhere every day."

In Thomaston, Ga., it took Alan Thacker two weeks to get his answer online. It wasn't the one he wanted.

"I don't know how many expletives I hurled at the computer -- 'Why are they doing it this way? Morons!' and other choice words," he recalled.

Thacker, 43, works for $7.55 an hour at Burger King, not enough to qualify for a discount plan for himself and his wife through the federal marketplace. People who don't earn enough for the marketplaces plans were supposed to be eligible for expanded Medicaid.

But because Georgia declined to enlarge its Medicaid program, the Thackers can't get help there, either.

Thacker said he likes the law, only wishing it could reach everyone in need.

"It's a great law and it's doing good stuff for people," Thacker said. "It's not doing anything for me."

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IT'S TOO EXPENSIVE

In theory, Rebecca Carlson has access to health insurance through her job. The marketplaces are mostly for people who don't.

A single mother in Asheville, N.C., she earns $11.50 an hour, around $23,000 a year, doing office work at a nonprofit agency that helps people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. She makes too much to qualify for the aid programs that support many of her agency's clients.

Covering Carlson and her 14-year-old son under her workplace plan would cost close to $5,000 per year. That's out of reach on her squeeze-every-nickel budget.

Depending on details of her workplace's offering, it's possible Carlson, 43, might qualify for an exception that would open the door to a marketplace subsidy. But she had so much trouble getting through online and by phone that she gave up trying; it seemed unlikely to help.

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