Several thousand middle-income Berkshire residents now covered by state-subsidized health insurance have gained a three-month reprieve from the deadline to reapply for coverage.

Many workers get employer-provided insurance. Those who don't, including income-eligible independent contractors, self-employed people, small-business workers and owners, have been insured through Commonwealth Care, a state program being phased out in favor of new plans through the Massachusetts Health Connector.

The state has now granted a deadline extension until March 31 for Commonwealth Care recipients who must reapply to continue coverage. Berkshire County has an estimated 2,000 people who are affected.

The new deadline lines up with the national extension granted for people seeking insurance through the troubled healthcare.gov site.

In Massachusetts, the Health Connector website has encountered similar technical difficulties.

However, people seeking new or renewed subsidized coverage should move ahead promptly with their applications, according to Octavio Hernandez, a certified applications counselor for Community Health Programs (CHP) in Great Barrington.

"We're encouraging people to apply as soon as possible," he emphasized. "There's no point to waiting longer."

Acknowledging that the state website, like the federal, is "very complicated, confusing for everyone including advocates like myself," Hernandez said he uses paper applications to smooth out the enrollment experience for clients.

"We avoid the frustration of trying to struggle with the system," he said, though he urges applicants to create online accounts since, in time, the website problems will be overcome.

Some confusion arose when Commonwealth Care clients received a mailing recently indicating that their benefits would expire on Dec. 31 unless they re-enrolled through the Health Connector by Dec. 23.

But, as explained by Jason Lefferts, the communications director for the Health Connector, the mailing went out before a decision last Thursday to extend the deadline.

Statewide, he said, 105,000 Commonwealth Care customers have to sign up for new insurance plans created to conform with the national Affordable Care Act, often referred to as ObamaCare.

But about 100,000 low-income residents covered by MassHealth, the state's version of Medicaid, automatically will be transferred to a new plan, Lefferts pointed out. They earn less than the federal poverty line -- for example, up to $11,490 a year for an individual and $23,550 for a family of four.

Because the federal law expands eligibility for MassHealth to people earning up to 133 percent above the poverty line, some low-income Commonwealth Care recipients are being asked to re-apply in order to gain enhanced, low-cost benefits through MassHealth.

That group includes individuals earning up $15,282 and a family of four with an income up to $31,322.

The federal law also expands subsidies for middle-income families not covered by employer insurance -- for example, individuals making up to $45,960 a year or a four-person household with annual earnings of up to $94,200 will now qualify for reduced premiums through the Massachusetts Health Connector.

"We are frustrated when people can't complete their applications," Lefferts acknowledged. "We anticipated bugs and we've certainly had them."

"We've had some issues when the site is really busy and gets really slow," he added, "but it hasn't crashed."

As of Monday, 63,510 applications for new coverage had been started statewide, and 22,050 had been completed, Lefferts told The Eagle. So far, only 1,001 applicants have selected new insurance plans since payment is not due until two weeks before the coverage goes into effect.

At Ecu-Health Care in North Adams, Executive Director Charles Joffe-Halpern acknowledged that "there's still a lot to be worked out, but I think state officials have responded very positively to the technological difficulties."

Joffe-Halpern said that as a "navigator" assisting clients, he has encountered the same technical problems on the state website as everyone else. But, he emphasized, "we're adapting to it."

"The only thing harder than passing health reform is implementing it," he said. "I don't anticipate ‘sticker shock' for folks on Commonwealth Care, and I'm still optimistic about the goals of the law. We just have to get through challenging times."

 

How to apply ...

Online: www.mahealthconnector.org.

By phone: 1-877-623-6765.

By mail: An application packet can be requested by calling the number listed above.

In person (to schedule an appointment):

-- CHP Neighborhood Health Center, 510 North St., Pittsfield: (413) 447-2351, Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-- Advocacy for Access, 510 North St., Pittsfield: (413) 445-9427, Mon.-Thurs., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-- Ecu-Health Care, North Adams, (413) 663-8711, Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-- Community Health Programs, Great Barrington, (413) 429-2953, Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; (413) 528-1919, ext. 24, Sat. only, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-- Advocacy for Access (Fairview Hospital), Great Barrington, (413) 854-9608, Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

 

To contact Clarence Fanto:

cfanto@yahoo.com, or (413) 637-2551.

On Twitter: @BE_cfanto