FOREST CITY — Less than two weeks remain for people in need of health insurance to sign up for Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, before the deadline of Dec. 15.

Pisgah Legal Services (PLS), and its enrollment partners, are offering free assistance to people in their 18-county service region including Rutherford, helping them review their options and sign up for plans.

Officials say the COVID-19 outbreak is making health coverage even more important in these difficult times.

“This is the most critical open enrollment period of my career, and I’ve been at Pisgah Legal Services for all of them,” says Jackie Kiger, chief operations officer. “With high unemployment and the fact that North Carolina hasn’t expanded Medicaid, there are many more uninsured people. We are seeing people who have lost jobs, income and insurance and who are struggling with the unemployment benefit system.”

The ACA is the law that ensures access to quality, affordable health insurance on the Health Insurance Marketplace. With these plans, consumers are protected and can’t be denied coverage for a pre-existing health condition and can’t be dropped for getting sick; insurers can’t charge higher premiums to women; and insurers can’t sell substandard plans that don’t pay for essential health care benefits.

PLS and enrollment partners offer residents free health insurance information and enrollment assistance through the N.C. Health Insurance Marketplace. These other partners are the Council on Aging of Buncombe County, Blue Dirge Community Health Services, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Mountain Projects and Western Carolina Medical Society. Citizens can also enroll directly through the website Healthcare.gov.

PLS has offices across western North Carolina, including Main Street, Rutherfordton. Appointments can be made online at www.pisgahlegal.org/aca or by calling 828 210-3404.

For the safety of consumers, staff and volunteers, all appointments are currently being conducted by telephone.

Shannon Cornelius, PLS health justice program director, says: “We are seeing very strong interest this year in sign-ups, but we still have some openings for safe and contact-free help with our trained assisters. There is still time to make and appointment if you act quickly.”

Financial assistance for health insurance is still available to those who qualify. Last year, more than 90% of North Carolinians who enrolled for coverage through the health insurance marketplace received financial assistance to make their plans more affordable. Subsidies are based on household taxable income and may be difficult for consumers to calculate themselves. PLS can help with this process and can factor in unemployment benefits if needed. PLS can also answer questions about other coverage, such as COBRA, and help people apply for Medicaid.

John Carroll, Rutherford County Department of Social Services director, sees firsthand how people are struggling financially.

“It is important that everyone have health insurance, probably even more so now due to COVID-19,” Carroll said. “We encourage those that believe they qualify for Medicaid, to apply, keeping in mind that in North Carolina only those responsible for a child 18 years old or younger, or are blind, or have a disability or has a family member in their household with a disability, or are 65 years old or older can receive Medicaid. If someone applies for Medicaid and is found ineligible they are referred to the ACA. If they apply for coverage through the ACA they are screened for Medicaid and referred there if they are likely eligible.”