Open enrollment for health insurance plans on the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange begins Nov. 15. The first in a series of informational community meetings intended to help Carroll residents understand what that means for them will kick off Monday at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library.

Healthy Howard, which oversees the Health Benefit Exchange for six western Maryland counties including Carroll, will host its first Affordable Care Act Community forum 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 3, at the library. The event will include two presentations, scheduled for 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and those attending will then have a chance to ask questions.

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"It's really a way to make sure that the residents of Carroll County understand what open enrollment is and what their options are," said Eric Masten, director of communications for Healthy Howard.

Those who miss Monday's forum will have an opportunity to attend additional events held almost weekly at branches of the Carroll County Public Library, according to Lisa Wack, a navigator with Healthy Howard.

There is also a call center available for those who have further questions, according to Masten. The call center can be reached at 855-288-3667.

Open enrollment is the period from Saturday, Nov. 15, through Sunday, Feb. 15, when Maryland residents can sign up for a health insurance plan through the Maryland Health Connection, according to Masten. After Feb. 15, enrollment will close except for those who have a qualifying life change, such as a change in employment or marital status, he said.

In the two weeks leading up to open enrollment, Masten said there will be an increasing number of opportunities to learn more and register for a plan through the exchange, starting on Nov. 9, with anonymous browsing. This will allow anyone to go to the Maryland Health Connection website and see what plans are available on the exchange, see if they qualify for a subsidy and get a quote for plans, all without creating an account or entering any identifying information into the system.

Enrollment in insurance programs will begin over the phone through the state call center on Nov. 16, according to Masten, and individuals will be able to enroll through the Maryland Health Connection website, marylandhealthconnection.gov, beginning on Nov. 19.

"Anyone who enrolled last year through the Maryland Health Connection definitely needs to visit the site, update their information and make their selections for 2015 in order to continue to receive financial assistance," Masten said. "If they received financial assistance, they want to make sure they make their selections by Dec. 18 in order to continue to see those benefits on their January bill."

The Affordable Care Act created a mandate for insurance coverage while also providing a subsidy for those earning less than a certain level of income, according to Masten. Meanwhile, those earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line — about $27,310 for a family of three — are eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage, according to the Maryland Health Connection website. That same family of three would be eligible for subsidies and reduced insurance costs in 2015 unless their income exceeded $79,160.

Last year, there were 1,292 enrollments in plans offered through the exchange in Carroll County, according to Masten, while an additional 4,400 enrollments were for individuals or families qualifying for Medicaid. The total number of enrollments, 5,692, represents 37.7 percent of the estimated uninsured population of Carroll County, Masten said, adding that those who purchased a private plan outside the exchange and those with existing coverage through an employer were not included in those numbers.

According to data available on the Enroll America website, there are currently 8,022 uninsured individuals younger than 65 in Carroll County. Of those, 40 percent, about 3,200 people, have an income that qualifies them for Medicaid.

It is difficult to determine if the competition of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange has driven down the prices of the plans being offered as the rate data provided by the Maryland Insurance Administration, which approves the rates for all plans offered in the exchange, is not consistent between 2014 and the new 2015 plans.

The sample rates for the nine insurers participating in the exchange in 2014 were based on a hypothetical 25-year-old nonsmoker shopping for a bronze plan — which pays an estimated 60 percent of medical costs — and a 50-year-old nonsmoker shopping for a silver plan, which pays an estimated 70 percent of medical costs.

The highest monthly rate for the hypothetical 25-year-old in 2014 was $237, from All Savers, and the lowest was $114, from BlueChoice.

The highest monthly rate for the 50-year-old in 2014 was $470, from All Savers, and the lowest was $260, from Coventry DE.

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The estimated rates for 2015 plans are based on 21-, 40- and 60-year-old individuals, making the comparison difficult, but not entirely without value.

For a 21-year-old shopping for a bronze plan, the highest rate is $222.05, from All Savers, and the lowest rate is $119, from CareFirst.

For a 40-year-old shopping for a silver plan, the highest rate is $315.35, from All Savers, and the lowest is $224.73, from CareFirst.

There may be individual factors and subsidies that could change those rates for any particular application, according to Masten, and with anonymous browsing there is no risk in checking out the plans to see if there is a better deal available.

"They can visit http://www.marylandhealthconnection.gov to learn more about some of the opportunities and resources out there," he said. "Anyone that is interested in finding out if they qualify for financial assistance should go ahead and check out the site. ... It's a great place for people to see what the range of options are. Whether or not you qualify for finance assistance you can still purchase a plan through the exchange."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

If you go

What: Affordable Care Act Community Forum

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 3

Where: The Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library, 50 E. Main St., Westminster

Cost: Free

Additional community forums will be held at the Taneytown branch of the library on Nov. 12 and 19, the Westminster branch on Nov. 16 and the North Carroll branch on Nov. 22.

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