Maryland health exchange opens website for browsing plans

With consumers facing a shorter period to enroll in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Maryland health exchange officials have opened their online marketplace so residents can get an early look at the costs of plans, which are expected to be higher this year.

Open enrollment starts Nov. 1 and lasts until Dec. 15 — 45 days down from three months last year.


"We have opened up anonymous shopping so people can now look at plans and see what benefits best fit them," said Dr. Howard Haft, interim executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, which operates the insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act. "They don't have to wait. They can plan now."

State regulators approved double-digit rate increases for Obamacare consumers in 2018.

About 150,000 Marylanders bought private plans last year through the exchange and others bought directly from insurers, mostly people who do not get insurance through their employers. Many more enrolled in Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income residents, which was expanded under the health law.


The program, known as Obamacare, has become a flashpoint in Washington, with President Donald Trump and GOP lawmakers unsuccessfully seeking to repeal or replace the law to make good on campaign promises going back years. Advocates and others have said the shortened enrollment period, as well as reduced marketing and hefty premium increases, could deter shoppers from buying coverage.

Exchange officials note that nine out of 10 people who bought plans on the exchange received federal subsidies to offset the cost. They also report that the percentage of uninsured in the state has been cut in half by the program, and now stands at around 6.1 percent.

Haft said he doesn't expect the shortened enrollment to deter people from enrolling in plans. Last year, 94 percent of people enrolled within the first 45 days anyway. There are also more ways to enroll, including through a mobile app.

Maryland also isn't hampered by some of the restrictions that have been put on exchanges run by the federal government, such as limited enrollment on weekends. The local officials also know the market better and can more precisely target people with marketing efforts, Haft said.

"I am still very optimistic," Haft said. "I think there are some very positive aspects for this particular enrollment period. Each year, we gain more understanding of the marketplace so we can address people's needs in our outreach."

Deemed insolvent, Evergreen Health to be liquidated

Advocacy group Health Care Access Maryland, which helps people enroll in plans, already has begun spreading the message about the shortened enrollment period.

"I am not really concerned about losing people," CEO Traci Kodeck said. "I think we are getting the word out early that it is a shortened time period."

As questions linger about the future of the Affordable Care Act, Kodeck said, advocates are encouraging people to enroll rather than try to predict what will happen later.

Consumers can expect higher premiums this year as insurers blame the costs of treating a small number of very sick patients. There are also fewer insurers offering plans because Cigna said it would not offer plans this year and state insurance regulators closed the co-op Evergreen Health because it had become insolvent.

Two insurance companies remain offering private plans this year, CareFirst BlueCross Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente.

"It is always better to have more competition," Haft said. "We anticipate in future years there will be more participants in the marketplace."

Leni Preston, president of Consumer Health First, praised Maryland exchange officials' effort at reaching residents who may want to buy plans.


She said it was action and inaction in Washington that could affect enrollment, from shortening the enrollment period to possibly not enforcing the so-called individual mandate that requires everyone get insurance or face a penalty. The mandate is meant to balance the pool of people paying for care by compelling the healthy to join.

Preston called on federal lawmakers to pass fixes to stabilize the health law, including addressing the large premium increases that are likely driving away consumers. Proposed measures center on establishing some kind of program to help insurers cover the high-cost consumers who are driving up everyone's rates.

Preston also said Congress needs to reauthorize funding for the Childrens Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to children through Medicaid and other standalone programs. It expired over the weekend.

The Maryland Children's Health Program directly covers more than 142,000 children statewide, according to the state Department of Health. The program could run out of money as soon as April, when federal matching funds would drop 50 percent, potentially posing daunting budget questions in Annapolis.

"It's important that policy makers and legislators fully understand how critical it is that everybody has equal access to health care," Preston said. "Medicaid and CHIP are safety net programs that service the most vulnerable, so it's imperative at the federal level that they pass required laws to ensure the necessary funding is in place. And it's a state-level imperative to cover as many people as possible, and that includes aggressive enrollment [in Obamacare] in what is a shortened enrollment period."

The Maryland health exchange website can be found at marylandhealthconnection.gov.

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