Two days before people can begin signing up for health insurance through the state exchange, state and city health officials gathered in Baltimore Monday to offer advice for navigating the open enrollment season.
Marylanders face a shorter enrollment period this year, which comes after multiple Republican-led efforts in Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — a central campaign promise of President Donald Trump.
At a Newsmaker Forum sponsored by The Baltimore Sun, city health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said that while the language surrounding health care remains highly politicized, the health department’s stance remains simple.
“Our message is that it is important to have health insurance,” Wen said. “You should get health insurance now if you don’t have it. Health is everything, so take care of yourself by getting insurance now.”
Open enrollment on the Maryland Health Connection site runs from Wednesday through Dec. 15 — a period of about half as long as last year. The insurance plans go into effect on Jan. 1.
More than one million Marylanders have health insurance through either the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act or through Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income residents was expanded under the health law. About 150,000 people bought private plans last year through the state exchange and others bought directly from insurers, primarily those who don’t get insurance through their employers. Another 290,000 Marylanders were covered by the expanded Medicaid.
Advocates of the health care law, often referred to as Obamacare, have said they worry the shortened enrollment period — coupled with the threat of higher premiums — could turn people off of purchasing coverage this year.
Dr. Howard Haft, interim executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, said during the forum that he is optimistic the state will accomplish its goals of increasing enrollment during the shortened timeframe. Last year, about 95 percent of enrollees signed up in the first 45 days of the enrollment period.
“It allows us to concentrate our marketing during that time,” Haft said. “It also lets people get a full year of coverage.”
According to exchange officials, nine of 10 Maryland Health Connection enrollees received financial support to offset some or all of the costs of premiums.
“Most Marylanders do qualify for some sort of assistance,” said certified “navigator” Joshua Morris, who helps people sign up for health care coverage
In 2016, the percentage of state residents without health insurance dropped to an all-time low of 6.1 percent, according to the U.S. census.
When the online health insurance exchange initially launched in 2013, users faced a host of problems, including lost applications and frozen computer screens. Others often spent hours waiting on hold. Years after the rocky rollout, Haft promised people a “state-of-the-art website” when they log on to enroll this year.
People also can sign up through a free mobile app, Enroll MHC, that allows users to upload verification documents with the camera on their phones.
There will be 20 enrollment events held throughout the state later this week, urging people to “beat the rush” and sign up for coverage with the help of healthcare experts. Baltimore residents will have a chance to ask questions Saturday at Southeast Anchor Library from 10 a.m. through 2 p.m. Another enrollment event will be hosted for state residents in December.
“We will have a whole group of navigators that will be there to help people get their questions answered and get them enrolled,” Morris said. “Anything that they need.”
CareFirst BlueCross Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente are the two companies offering private plans this year.
With so much uncertainty about the future of Obamacare, Wen said, it’s important to focus on getting the facts. While the Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect, she said, it’s helped many gain vital coverage in recent years.
“If we keep saying that something doesn’t work, the narrative becomes that this thing doesn’t work, and then more policies and regulations are going to happen to make it not work,” she said. “Insurance works if we’re all in it.”
The Maryland health exchange website can be found at marylandhealthconnection.gov.