Enrollments in the Maryland health exchange up in first week

Enrollments in Maryland’s health exchange are well ahead of last year in the first week of the sign-up period, exchange officials said.

Those buying policies for the first time are up 15 percent to about 4,020. And total enrollments, which includes new and returning consumers, are double the number at this time last year, at 10,420.

Officials say that people are shopping around for the plans, created under the Affordable Care Act largely for those who do not get health insurance through work. There are many plans offered this year, but by only two insurers, Kaiser Permanente and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

The heavy activity — through the website, marylandhealthconnection.gov, and the mobile app — appear to mirror the interest in the federal exchange used by about three dozen states, according to media reports. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has not released official counts.

The activity defies the expectations of some advocates who feared political turmoil at the federal level over the insurance, known as Obamacare, as well as a shortened enrollment period, cuts to subsidies and the marketing budget, and big spikes in premium costs, would put off potential enrollees.

Maryland health exchange officials nonetheless had set a goal of matching or exceeding enrollment. About 150,000 people in Maryland enrolled in private plans through the exchange for coverage this year. Many more have sought coverage under an expanded Medicaid program, which covers low-income residents.

“We're hopeful it's a sign that people have gotten the message that open enrollment is going on now and that they have a shorter period to sign up,” said Andrew Ratner, a spokesman for the exchange. “It should also be remembered that we're five years into the ACA now, so there is an existing base of customers who don't want to lose what they have gained.”

Ratner said the website, initially so dysfunctional that it had to be replaced, now operates smoothly and that a mobile app has also proved popular. He said the call-center workers and so-called navigators, who help people enroll largely in storefronts and at events, have five years of experience now and can offer valuable aid, Ratner said.

That aid and marketing the open enrollment period, which runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, has remained steady in Maryland while it has been drastically reduced at the federal level by the administration of President Donald Trump.

A major issue in Maryland, however, has been double-digit premium increases for 2018, on top of hefty increases in past years. About 78 percent of enrollees in private plans through the exchange receive subsidies and have been largely unaffected by the premium increases, leaving a minority with sometimes extremely high monthly payments and deductibles.

The increases brought blistering reactions from unsubsidized consumers at hearings and on the website of the Maryland Insurance Administration, which approves the rates.

Leni Preston, president of Consumer Health First, had sought moderation of the premium increases so health care would not become out of reach for some. She said the group is now encouraging consumers to seek assistance as they shop so they can identify the best plan at the most affordable rate. Enrollment events, as well as a list of those who will assist in enrolling, can be found on the exchange website. The call-center number is 1-855-642-8572.

Preston said the group remains “grateful” to the Maryland exchange.

“Their proactive approach has led to these very positive numbers, which affirm the public’s recognition of the value of the ACA and health care more broadly,” she said.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mercohn

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