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Maryland health exchange launches new mobile app for enrollment

Maryland health exchange officials have launched a new app specifically designed to help people enroll in health insurance on their phones and tablets. The move is a response to the high rate of people using mobile devices — more than a third — to visit the state's online marketplace for health insurance.

The free "Enroll MHC" app — available in the App Store for iOS users and the Google Play Store for Android users — will be loaded with 2017 plans before open enrollment begins Nov. 1, officials said. Those who need insurance to begin in January must enroll by Dec. 15, though enrollment continues until Jan. 31.

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The exchange, created under the federal Affordable Care Act, provides a forum for people without workplace insurance to buy coverage. Hundreds of thousands of people have bought private plans or enrolled in Medicaid through Maryland's exchange.

The exchange suffered technical difficulties so severe during the first enrollment period in 2013 that the technology was scrapped. Since then, there have been several enrollment periods without major incident and officials say the emphasis now is on finding those who still haven't bought coverage, despite a federal penalty for not doing so, and improving the consumer experience on the website, MarylandHealthConnection.gov.

Some key targets of the exchange — young people, those with low incomes, and African-Americans and Latinos — depend more on their phones for online access than other groups, according to exchange officials. About 13 percent of Americans with annual household income of less than $30,000 rely on their phones, while 1 percent of households earning $75,000 or more do.

The exchange also will redesign the website this year to use simpler language and provide better directions to speed the enrollment process, exchange officials said.

Last year, exchange officials said, some people were flummoxed by an enrollment question about how many people were in their household because they had nonfamily roommates, for example. The answer could affect whether they qualified for Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, or if they received subsidies to pay premiums on private insurance.

The redesigned website, which will debut in October, "will be a little friendlier," with more terms and steps explained, said Andrew Ratner, director of marketing and strategic initiatives at Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees the online marketplace.

Ratner told members of the exchange board Monday that the combination of the mobile app and the redesigned website should make it easier to enroll, though he couldn't say if users would require less help from the call center, which is heavily staffed during enrollment. The effects will be tracked, he said, adding that when Connecticut's exchange introduced a similar app, people browsed or began enrollment on their phones but didn't always complete the process through the app.

"There will always be folks that need help," said Carolyn Quattrocki, the exchange's executive director. But she said she believes the app and the new website "will go a long way."

Exchange officials plan to advertise the app and website on social media and in promotional events as open enrollment ramps up.

U.S. Census data released last week show that the number of eligible uninsured in the state has dropped since the exchange went online. Just 6.6 percent of Marylanders, or about 389,000 people, went uninsured in 2015, down from 10.2 percent, or about 593,000, in 2013.

However, consumer advocates have criticized rate increases on the exchange in Maryland and across the country. The Maryland Insurance Administration approved double-digit rate increases earlier this month for the four insurance companies that sell health plans on the exchange.

Insurers have said that the increases were necessary because exchange users tended to be sicker and costlier than anticipated, though the majority will collect taxpayer subsidies to offset the cost of the premiums.

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