The number of Wyomingites who enrolled in a health marketplace plan jumped from 521 as of Nov. 30 to 3,450 as of Dec. 28, according to demographic data released by the Department of Health and Human Services this week.
Of those in the latest statewide tally, 89 percent qualified for financial assistance compared to 79 percent nationwide.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Wyoming has a higher percentage of people requiring assistance,” said Stephen Goldstone, president and CEO of WINhealth. “There are 83,000 people uninsured in Wyoming, and they’re uninsured for a reason. They can’t afford health insurance.”
According to Health and Human Services Figures, 82,500 Wyomingites are uninsured. About half of those people are eligible for federal tax credits.
WINhealth is one of two health insurance companies, along with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, providing insurance to Wyomingites through the marketplace exchange, which launched Oct. 1.
Goldstone said WINhealth is signing up 50 to 75 people a day, and he expects to enroll 6,000 people by the time open enrollment closes March 31. After that, individuals who are uninsured will be subject to a penalty.
That, more than anything, might be the wake-up call some people need, state Rep. Elaine Harvey said.
“Until people get their income tax penalty … they’re not going to be motivated to do anything different than they’re doing today,” Harvey said.
With some exceptions, those people will have to wait until the end of the year to apply.
A Human Health and Services report shows a spike in week nine of open enrollment — after the website started working more reliably.
“We’ve had more people sign up in the first few days of January than we had all of October and November,” Goldstone said.
The report said December enrollment nationally was seven-fold greater than the combined total for October and November.
National enrollment was at 2.15 million as of Dec. 28.
Nationally, 79 percent of individuals who selected a plan could receive financial assistance, but neighboring states like Nebraska (84 percent) and South Dakota (86 percent) tracked more closely with Wyoming.
A big question in the early going has been whether the health care exchange could pull in enough younger, healthier people to not make the system costlier. So far, 35 percent of Wyoming enrollees are under the age of 34 compared to 30 percent nationally.
“I’m not even sure if it’s statistically significant at this point,” said Mike Fierberg, a spokesman in Denver for Health and Human Services’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Obviously, it’s important to have a number of young people in the system, but we want to encourage anyone of any age to sign up.”
Goldstone said WINHealth’s numbers are still “slightly skewed” toward older people.
Fierberg and Goldstone believe the end of February through the end of March will see a spike in enrollees, particularly younger people, as procrastinators try to slide in under the open enrollment deadline.
With that in mind, Fierberg encouraged Wyomingites to start doing their homework now to avoid likely delays during peak usage times.
“The website is built to handle a certain number of people on at a time, and if it gets crazy, it will tell you, 'Sorry, please try again in a few hours,'” Fierberg said. “The system works pretty well, but people want to do it when they want to do it. Delta doesn’t tell you, 'Sorry we can’t sell you a ticket right now, we’ll call you back.'”
The health care exchanges need at least a year before anyone can start making informed judgment calls on whether the program is working, Harvey, the state representative said. But she thinks Wyoming is off to a good start.
“It exceeded my expectation,” Harvey said. “Coming in as the highest premium in the nation made me very skeptical. … I thought people would be hard-pressed to buy at that price, but I think the subsidy has helped.”