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Health exchange extends open enrollment by a week

Consumers are getting an extra week to buy insurance on the state's health exchange.

Open enrollment on the state's health insurance exchange has been extended five days because of the snowstorm that crippled the region and might have prevented consumers from seeking assistance, officials said Friday.

The sign-up period had been scheduled to end Sunday but will stretch to midnight Friday for those who don't have workplace insurance or need to re-enroll in coverage on the exchange website, marylandhealthconnection.gov, or in person at an exchange-sponsored office.

The exchange plans to hold several enrollment fairs Sunday, and some aid services, called connector entities, also will extend storefront hours.

"This past week really disrupted travel and operations around the state, and a lot of connector entities had to close," said Carolyn Quattrocki, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange's executive director.

Despite the snow, Quattrocki said, exchange enrollment during the third year is outpacing the previous two, with 160,000 enrolled in private plans and 300,000 enrolled in Medicaid. About 70,000 people automatically renewed their private policies.

She said others were spurred to shop around because of premium hikes, particularly from the state's dominant insurer, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. A new Commonwealth Fund analysis found Maryland's plans rose an average of 9 percent.

Exchange officials said they also better targeted African-Americans, Latinos and young people who eschewed coverage even though the tax penalty for lacking insurance rises this year to $695. The percentage of uninsured is now estimated at about 5 percent statewide, down from about 15 percent before the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Quattrocki said people ages 18-34 now comprise 29 percent of exchange consumers, among the largest shares nationwide. Young people can balance the insurance pool when they are healthier and use fewer services and could moderate premium increases next year. Insurers have complained exchange consumers are older and less healthy, and therefore more expensive.

The connector entities say their storefronts have been busier. In Harford County, the connector entity Seedco opened its first storefront with a big sign on busy Route 22 to lure harder-to-reach populations, said Sue Ehlenberger, the group's Harford County lead navigator. She described the target groups as middle-class families with small businesses or with jobs that don't offer insurance, early retirees not eligible for Medicare, and young people.

She said it's been gratifying to help match people with plans, and offer federal subsidies — most people qualify. Ehlenberger said one gruff older man became teary when he realized he'd get aid.

"All of us have full days of appointments and will be working all day Saturday to accommodate last-minute need," Ehlenberger said before the enrollment was extended.

She also noted that people who qualify for Medicaid, the low-income federal-state health insurance program, can enroll year-round, as can people who experience work or family changes.

There have been far fewer technical hiccups this year, the exchange's third open enrollment, but officials are beginning to tackle other issues, including making plans easier to navigate. There are more than 60. They also are trying to ensure network provider lists are more up to date.

Also Friday, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh warned those not yet enrolled this year that scammers have been seeking to lure consumers to nonexchange websites to buy potentially useless health discount cards or give up personal financial information. He urged people to make sure they go through official exchange channels.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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