ATLANTIC CITY - Some of New Jersey's 1.2 million uninsured residents began signing up Tuesday for the federal health insurance plan that is central to the debate that led to the partial shutdown of the federal government.
About 35,000 residents of Atlantic County are now obliged to enroll in the subsidized insurance or the expanded rolls of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, said Maura Collinsgru, a health-policy advocate for the nonprofit New Jersey Citizen Action.
The group is promoting the program as a way of helping New Jersey's uninsured get affordable access to health care, she said.
She spoke to residents Tuesday at an Atlantic City health clinic, the Southern Jersey Family Medical Center. Collinsgru said the program is expected to make a big difference in the lives of uninsured workers. About three in four enrollees are employed.
"They may be the person who served you coffee this morning or the person who brought you dinner. They might be the person who worked on your house," she said.
Enrollment began Tuesday nationwide, not without some delays.
"Confusion is the word of the day," said Christine Stearns, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
She spent much of Tuesday talking to business owners on how the act affects them.
"So many small employers are confused about what their new responsibilities are under the law," she said.
Joe Sangataldo, 55, said he experienced a 30-minute wait on the phone before reaching a live representative. The federal enrollment website - healthcare.gov - showed signs of lag as well with the greeting: "Health Insurance Marketplace: Please wait."
Sangataldo formerly worked at a One Stop Career Center before he was laid off. He said he has not had health insurance in three years. He enrolled on Tuesday.
"You don't touch door knobs. You get off the bus if someone is really coughing," he said. "I can't afford to be sick."
Sangataldo is hoping to get work as a "navigator" helping people where he lives in Camden sign up for the Affordable Care Act. The act includes $54 million in grants to community centers to help uninsured individuals enroll in the federal health-insurance program.
The federal government also is turning to public libraries for assistance. Cape May County's library had one of its employees take an online seminar sponsored by the New Jersey State Library to learn the ins and outs of the insurance program, library director Deb Pullion said.
"We're used to doing this kind of thing," she said. "Every day, we help people with job applications and applying for public services."
Cape May County is expected to see a lot of interest in the program, she said.
"We have a lot of people who are dependent on public help. With so much seasonal work, there are a lot of people who do not have health insurance," she said.
Enrollment will continue through March 31. Coverage goes into effect Jan. 1.
The plan also offers coverage to small businesses and some workers who are already covered by expensive private insurance plans.
The Affordable Care Act has already provided health insurance to about 73,000 young adults in New Jersey by allowing them to stay on their parents' insurance plans until they turn 26.
Businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers are not obligated to offer coverage. But these small businesses or their workers could purchase the insurance through the program.
Uninsured residents are obligated to enroll or face tax penalties next year starting at $95 or 1 percent of their taxable income. The tax penalty increases by 2016 to $695 or 2.5 percent of an individual's annual income, with a family cap of $2,085.
The mandatory provisions of the law have generated perhaps the most criticism among small business. Businesses with 50 or more employees must offer them health insurance or face tax penalties starting in 2015.
"Small-business owners are not celebrating today," said Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
"We objected to the mandate that everyone must have it. Many small businesses don't have insurance for themselves or their employees because they have to divert money to the business," he said. "Small-business owners are faced with some very difficult decisions now. Many who are near 50 employees have virtually no incentive to hire anyone additionally because it will trigger the law. It creates a perverse incentive to not hire."
The act's implementation in South Jersey remains as polarizing as the congressional debate that led to the government shutdown.
The Rev. Reginald Floyd, of Northfield, likened the Affordable Care Act to constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and granting suffrage.
"You have politicians who are once again on the wrong side of history," he said. "We need affordable health care. It's not a privilege; it's a moral right."
Contact Michael Miller: