December 12, 2013

Mainers increasing insurance sign-ups

Nearly 1,800 had lined up health coverage online by Nov. 30 as fixes to the federal website kicked in.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Brenda Nasberg-Jepson set a timer Wednesday to see how long it would take her to sign up for health insurance on www.healthcare.gov.

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Self-employed documentary filmmakers Brenda Nasberg Jepson and Alan Jepson interview 95-year-old Rodney Pelkey for a show called "Maple Meadow Farm" shown on Maine Public Broadcasting in May 2013. The Jepsons, residents of Aroostook County, have purchased health insurance made available to them via the Affordable Care Act.

Sarah L. Brooks

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She made her final click 58 minutes later, finding out unexpectedly that her family will save about $4,000 a year with coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace.

“I was curious how much time it would take, considering all the horror stories I had heard. It was so easy,” said Nasberg-Jepson, 57, who lives in Aroostook County. “This is going to be a huge savings for us.”

Such stories are becoming more common as bugs in the federal website are worked out.

Nearly 1,800 people in Maine had signed up for insurance on Healthcare.gov as of Nov. 30, according to numbers released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That’s more than six times the number who had signed up by the end of October, the month the marketplace opened and the website was launched, with disastrous results.

Because of widespread technical problems, only 271 Mainers got through the online registration process in October.

Nationally, 137,000 people had used healthcare.gov to enroll by Nov. 30. The number was about 27,000 after the first month.

Thirty-six states, including Maine, are relying on the federal website for enrollments in the insurance marketplace. Fourteen states have their own websites.

Overall, nearly 365,000 people had signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act as of Nov. 30.

Health care advocates say the numbers show progress toward the goal of making a substantial dent in the number of uninsured Americans. While people can sign up with paper applications or by phone, the websites are the primary vehicle for individuals – many of them part-time and self-employed workers – to buy subsidized insurance in the marketplace.

“It’s not flawless yet, but it’s turning out that the website is a simple process that works,” said Trish Riley, adjunct professor at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. “This is really good news.”

Consumers have until Dec. 23 to sign up for coverage that begins in January. They must enroll by March 31 to avoid paying a federal tax penalty for being without health insurance.

About 130,000 people in Maine are uninsured, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a Maine advocacy group, has predicted that 50,000 to 75,000 people in the state will sign up for coverage in the first year, which means there likely will be a crush of people trying to sign up in the last weeks of 2013. “People are going to wait until the bitter end to sign up,” said Riley.

According to the federal numbers, nearly 9,000 people in Maine have completed applications but have not taken the final steps to enroll.

Navigators, who are hired through federal grants to help people enroll for health insurance, are already seeing their appointment books fill up, said Alyson Cummings, spokeswoman for the Maine Health Access Foundation, which operates www.enroll207.com, an informational website about signing up for health insurance.

“It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem to have,” Cummings said. “It shows people want to purchase the insurance.”

If predictions prove true, the health insurance marketplace will dramatically reduce the number of uninsured Americans, which will have many societal benefits, said Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of the advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners.

“A healthier work force is a more productive work force, and it will reduce the bad debt and charity care costs at hospitals because fewer people will be using emergency rooms for non-emergency care,” she said.

Gagne-Holmes said the newly insured will have more access to primary care and, with free preventive screenings, health problems will be caught in the early stages.

Nasberg-Jepson and her husband, Alan Jepson, are self-employed filmmakers, producing cultural and historic films for public television. They have had health insurance, but it has often been pricey and had gaps in coverage.

She said they have insurance now through Maine’s Dirigo Health plan, which is ending this year, and they’re still paying off bills totaling several thousand dollars from gall bladder and hernia surgeries in 2010.

She said their new plan through the Affordable Care Act will have lower premiums, lower deductibles and lower co-pays. They qualify for federal subsidies, which are available for those whose annual earnings are at 100 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty level – up to about $92,000 for a family of four.

Nasberg-Jepson said the new plan gives them more peace of mind, knowing that they won’t be saddled with debt if they need surgery.

“We had no idea we would be saving this much money,” she said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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