When Donald Scalzo got sick, he lost his job.
The York Township resident used a COBRA plan for health insurance for a while, paying up to $550 a month, he said. If Scalzo had kept the plan, he said he would have had to pay 50 percent more than that, which he couldn't afford.
But on Tuesday, he successfully enrolled in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, making the March 31 deadline to avoid a $95 or more tax penalty.
His new rate? Less than $50 a month after premium tax credits.
But most eligible Pennsylvanians haven't signed up.
Out of the state's estimated potential enrollees — nearly 1.3 million — only 159,821 have enrolled in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace as of March 1, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. That works out to about 12.5 percent.
Deadline softens: People who've started applying for health insurance but aren't able to finish before the March 31 enrollment deadline will get extra time, the Obama administration announced Tuesday night.
The HealthCare.gov website got more that 1 million visitors Monday, and the administration wants to prevent a repeat of website problems that soured consumers last fall.
Officials said the grace period will be available to people on the honor system, meaning applicants will have to attest that special circumstances or complex cases prevented them from finishing by March 31.
It's unclear how long the extension will last. Some have urged the administration to allow until April 15, the tax filing deadline. People who are due refunds may be willing to put some of that money toward health care premiums.
Road to coverage: Scalzo's new plan begins April 1, and he is very pleased with the rate.
"It's more than affordable," he said. "It's very doable."
But that success didn't come without struggle.
After walking into Family First Health in York City for an enrollment session, he grew increasingly frustrated as the morning turned into lunchtime. Nothing was coming easily, and the HealthCare.Gov website kept kicking him off.
But after some help from one of Family First's certified application counselors, Scalzo was able to pick his plan.
"It was really helpful," he said. "I had a great feeling about this place."
Enrollment success: In the first 90 minutes of the enrollment session, Family First helped out about a dozen people, said counselor Tamri Wampler. About a third of them enrolled in health insurance before leaving the session, she said.
The health center's counselors first ask patients if they've ever been on the website. Many of them haven't, Wampler said.
"Most of them are start-ups," she said.
Counselors help them create an account for the website and show the steps needed to secure insurance. Most patients can sign up in about 45 minutes, but every case is different, Wampler said.
Ann Leib of Springettsbury Township came to Family First to end her old plan and start looking for a new one that could save her some money.
She didn't enroll at the center because she wanted to go home and research if she could keep her doctors under the new plan. But Leib said the counselors helped her get acclimated to the process, which was pretty easy once she got the hang of it.
"I wasn't quite sure how to get started, but they were very helpful," she said.
— Reach Mollie Durkin at email@example.com.