Obamacare sign-ups surge among Mich. residents

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Michigan enrollment is up at HealthCare.gov as 153,241 consumers had signed up for health insurance through Dec. 9, a 16 percent increase over this time last year, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This year’s open enrollment period lasts just 45 days, compared with 90 days a year ago, increasing the intensity for insurers and health advocates who help people sign up. Consumers have through Friday to sign up and select a plan.

“Honestly, our lines have been ringing off the hook and our schedules have been booked up through the end of open enrollment for about a week,” said Farah Erzouki, public health coordinator at ACCESS in Dearborn, which provided enrollment assistance to 1,200 people in November alone, 100 more than during the same month last year.

“I will say that our offices have been busier than ever this open enrollment season. People are seeing these uncertainties, and people are seeing the shorter open enrollment period as even more reason to come through our doors and get covered.”

National enrollment topped 4.7 million by Dec. 9, the end of the sixth week of this year’s Open Enrollment Period. That’s up from last year, when 4 million had enrolled by the end of the sixth week. But by the end of last year’s 14-week open enrollment period, enrollment had grown to more than 9 million. In Michigan, 321,451 signed up.

“I’m not sure where those numbers are going to end up, but I think overall it’s a success story,” said Lori Lodes, co-founder of Get America Covered, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit that helps people with the registration process. “Demand for coverage is so incredibly high — that’s what we’re seeing.

“There are more people getting coverage than ever before, and that speaks to people valuing having health coverage.”

Health advocacy groups, such as ACCESS, have fewer “navigators” to help people sign up in the wake of cuts in federal funding. Federal marketing and public education efforts also were slashed, so less information has been is available about how to enroll, advocates have said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the shortened enrollment period early this year as a way to better align with other federal programs, like Medicare. The change was also promoted as a way to keep consumers from gaming the system by waiting until they’re sick to enroll. But critics charged the move was intended to undermine the health insurance exchange, which is a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act.

One Dearborn resident, Mohammed Al Maweri, was at the ACCESS offices on Tuesday seeking information about his health care options. The 43-year-old is a refugee of war-torn Yemen, who came to this area last year with his wife, Saba, 32, and their three small children.

Saba Al Maweri, an American citizen, and her children qualify for Medicaid, the federally funded health insurance program for low-income people. Mohammed Al Maweri is not eligible for that program, and his job at a small Detroit trucking company doesn’t provide health insurance. He earns $30,000 per year.

Rawa Abouarabi, an ACCESS navigator, showed Al Maweri details of three plans he is qualified for.

Saba Al Maweri said the plan they chose was better because it offered a flat rate. “The other plans were more of a hassle,” she said.

Rick Notter, director of individual business marketing at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said subsidies have been a source of confusion for consumers. His call center staff has been working to reassure members their subsidies are still available.

The confusion occurred after President Donald Trump in October scrapped cost-sharing reduction payments paid to health insurers to offset the companies’ health care costs. The move did not eliminate advance premium tax credit subsidies for consumers, such as ones that will reduce the amount of Al Maweri’s monthly premiums.

“Throughout the weeks leading up to open enrollment, and then when it started, there was a lot of consumer confusion, and among agents that sell these policies,” Notter said. “We’ve had to do a lot of explaining to members as they call in (on) how those different subsidies work.”

Notter said it’s impossible to know how this year’s open enrollment period will measure up. In addition to the shorter enrollment period and confusion surrounding changes in Washington, Trump’s elimination of cost-sharing reduction payments for insurers caused rates to go up across the state and the country.

“Our enrollment is right in line with what we had expected, but it’s down from last year,” said Marti Lolli, chief marketing officer and senior vice president for consumer market with Priority Health, Michigan’s second largest health insurer.

Lolli said people need to visit the HealthCare.gov website to check out their options. Priority created several new plans this year, specifically to give consumers more choices.

“The enrollment period is shortened so people don’t have as long to pick a plan,” Lolli said. “Trump’s administration has made some changes to subsidies, and that affected the prices people are paying this year, (but) in a lot of cases consumers aren’t paying the full price of the increase.

“For a lot of people there’s no impact because the government’s going to pay the difference. People really need to go and see what their options are because it could be a better deal.”