By Ann McCreary

The deadline to enroll and submit payment for a private health insurance plan through the state’s “Healthplanfinder” website is March 31 at 11:59 p.m.

The approaching deadline has produced a last-minute rush of Methow Valley residents seeking help from in-person assisters at Room One.

“We’re booked out between now and the deadline,” said Lori Valentine, one of two client services specialists at Room One who received special training to assist people in signing up for insurance under Washington’s online exchange.

Valentine said she and Erin Flahive are trying to squeeze in people who are signing up at the last minute before the open-enrollment period closes on March 31.

An in-person assister who is bilingual in Spanish and English has also been coming to Room One each week through a partnership with Family Health Centers in Okanogan, Valentine said.

People who qualify for the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program may enroll year-round, as well as those enrolling in the Small Business Health Options Program, according to information provided this month by the state.

Individuals making less than $15,857 and a family of four making less than $32,500 can qualify for Apple Health.

People may also qualify for insurance outside of the open-enrollment period if they experience “qualifying life events” such as a change in income, getting married, giving birth or adopting a child, or losing other health coverage through job loss, divorce or other reasons.

The next open-enrollment period for coverage to take effect on or after Jan. 1, 2015, is Nov. 15, 2014, through Feb. 15, 2015.

For coverage beginning on April 1, 2014, payment must be made by March 23. For coverage beginning May 1, payment must be made by March 31, according to Healthplanfinder information.

If the entire application process is not complete and payment submitted by 11:59 p.m. on March 31, customers will need to wait until the next enrollment period beginning Nov. 15, unless they have a life event that qualifies them for enrollment.

The ACA requires most people to purchase insurance in 2014 to avoid a penalty. For individuals, the penalty will start at $95 a year or up to 1 percent of income, and increase to $695 or 2.5 percent of income by 2016. For families, the penalty will be $2,085 or up to 2.5 percent of household income.

People can still purchase a policy directly from an insurance company between March and October, but they will not be eligible for any financial subsidies.

However, the ACA exempts several groups from the requirement to purchase insurance, based on religious, financial and other reasons.

Customers who experience errors in processing their applications may qualify for a special enrollment outside of the March 31 deadline “on a case-by-case basis,” according to information from Healthplanfinder.

Room One’s in-person assisters said it has been difficult for them and their clients to get help on the customer-support phone line.

“They’re still understaffed, but they’re training people,” Valentine said.

The customer support center number is (855) 923-4633. To contact the in-person assisters at Room One, call 997-2050.

People can also enroll on their own through the exchange’s website at www.wahealthplanfinder.org