Health-care ‘navigators’ smile through a frenzied deadline day

The lines were long during the deadline day for the Affordable Care Act, but the people tasked with helping applicants out were cheery and focused. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

SILVER SPRING, Md. — The phones didn’t stop ringing, and Angela Everett’s voice, the one with the smile in it, never faltered: “Maryland Health Connection, this is Angela, how can I help you?” By 2 p.m. on Monday, the last day to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, Everett had already given that greeting hundreds of times to last-minute applicants who were confused, irritated and even a little frightened.

Everett was the first point of phone contact for hundreds of people calling the Silver Spring offices, where staffers were helping people in various stages of signing up for the Maryland Health Benefits Exchange.

Many people came into the office after attempting to work their way through a website that’s been called a disaster by some, and glitch-plagued by others. Even Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who wanted Maryland to be a leader in adoption of the Affordable Care Act, has said the site has proven a failure.

On Tuesday, the state’s health care exchange board is expected to vote on the future of the website. It’s expected the members will vote to scrap it.

So how did Everett manage to stay so sunny and unruffled when the phones didn’t stop ringing and some callers were clearly impatient?

“It’s all about helping people,” she says. “We’re trying to effectively get everybody covered that we possibly can.”

Dourakine Rosarion, special assistant in the director’s office of Montgomery County Health and Human Services, says it is work with a mission: assisting people who need help.

“That is our mantra,” Rosarion says.

She kept her focus on one thing — making sure that people could leave at the end of the day enrolled, or knowing that they’d gotten the extension allowing them to finish the process at a later date.

Rosarion scanned the room where hundreds of people were getting set up to go through the electronic process — when the computers weren’t going down — and said, “When they put the sticker on that says ‘I’ve got insurance’ with a big smile on their face, that gives us so much joy!”

Many crowding into the offices on Georgia Avenue had either given up on the electronic process or admitted that they’d waited until the last minute. Many needed the help of translators. And the hours-long wait weighed on parents with toddlers or the elderly. But the health care “navigators” didn’t let the crush get to them. They thanked the applicants for their patience while having to draw on reserves of their own.

As she collected papers with the names of more than 450 people rushing to sign up for an extension, Everett said, “When you care about people, you don’t mind going the extra mile and keeping that smile on your face. Because it could be you” on the other end of the phone, or at the end of a very long line.

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WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

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