JEFFERSON CITY — With Missouri apparently lagging behind in health insurance sign-ups, advocates are launching a concerted push this weekend to enroll people through a federally run insurance website before an impending deadline.
About 40 insurance enrollment events are planned for Saturday around the state, with scores more scheduled before a March 31 deadline set by President Barack Obama's health care law for most Americans to have health insurance. Those who don't get coverage can face a tax penalty of at least $95.
As of Feb. 20, about 68,000 Missouri residents had enrolled in private health plans through the online insurance marketplace, most of whom received federal subsidies to help offset the cost of premiums, said Ryan Barker, vice president for health policy at the Missouri Foundation for Health, a nonprofit group that's promoting the insurance marketplace.
Missouri's enrollment was just 55 percent of the way toward meeting the goal set by the federal government, Barker said.
Previously released federal figures show Missouri also trailed the national average in the percentage of people who actually picked a health insurance policy after being determined eligible through the online marketplace.
Missouri has an estimated 800,000 residents without health insurance.
Starting this weekend, health care advocates plan "a big push for outreach and enrollment events," Barker said.
At one site in St. Louis, potential insurance applicants can get free tacos and T-shirts while being entertained by rock bands, said Kris Reinertson, a certified application counselor who's involved in the event.
Other Saturday enrollment events will take place at libraries, colleges, churches, medical centers, shopping malls and recreational facilities in rural towns and larger cities alike. Some of the events will have professional tax preparers on hand to provide advice.
The Cover Missouri Coalition, which is a project of the Missouri Foundation for Health, also is rolling out new online and radio advertisements encouraging people to sign up for health insurance. The ads generally feature the benefits of having insurance, not the tax penalty people could pay if they don't, Barker said.
Part of the promotion includes online video testimonials from people who already have signed up through the federally run website, which was plagued by numerous technical problems when it launched in October.
Among those featured is Hudson Harkins, a St. Louis musician who said his insurer planned to raise his health insurance premiums to more than $1,000 per month in 2014. Harkins said he instead bought a comparable plan through Missouri's federally run insurance website and is paying just $149 per month because of the subsidies.
"It's lifted a big burden from us," Harkins said in an interview. "I've had it for three months now, made three payments, and everything seems to be working fine."
Although states could choose to operate their own insurance exchanges, more than two-thirds of the states have sites run fully or partly by the federal government. Missouri's Republican-led legislature referred a measure to the ballot, which voters approved in 2012, that prohibits state officials from setting up an insurance exchange or providing "assistance or resources of any kind" to the federal government to implement one in Missouri.
The insurance marketplaces were a key part of Obama's plan to reduce the ranks of the uninsured. The other prong involved an expansion of Medicaid coverage to low-income adults for which states could receive extra federal money.
Missouri lawmakers have repeatedly defeated efforts to expand adult Medicaid eligibility. A House committee hearing is scheduled Monday on legislation that proposes to expand coverage by using the federal Medicaid money to buy private insurance policies for some people.