Three weeks into open enrollment, more than 8,300 Wyomingites have signed up for insurance on the health care exchange, a surge of nearly 2,000 people compared to a similar period last year.
The figures, provided last Wednesday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, show 8,348 people have purchased a plan through HealthCare.Gov between Nov. 1 and Nov. 18. Those figures include both new enrollees and people who previously had coverage through the exchange and are re-upping.
Over a similar time period last year, 6,408 people had purchased a plan in Wyoming.
The surge in enrollment comes after months of uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act, which created exchanges. Republicans in Congress attempted to repeal the law, and when that effort failed, President Donald Trump used executive orders to attack parts of the ACA, also called Obamacare.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Dennis DelPizzo, spokesman for the Denver office of CMS, “because absolutely it’s been widely publicized and the health insurance market place has been in the crosshairs ever since the new administration has taken over as far as some objections and some different ways of looking at how to best get people affordable health insurance and some of the mechanics and mechanisms of going about doing that. ... I have to say on a personal level, I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Officials attributed the boost to a number of things, including the fact that this open enrollment period is significantly shorter than in years past. The window will close for most people on Dec. 15. Previously, it had lasted through January.
The surge can also be attributed to the work done by Enroll Wyoming, which helps consumers navigate the enrollment process, officials said.
“I would add the increased numbers demonstrate the value Wyoming consumers place on the ability to access affordable health insurance, which provides adequate and comprehensive coverage to individuals and families,” said Josh Hannes, the director of Enroll Wyoming and of strategy and external affairs at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. The hospital helps coordinate the Enroll Wyoming program, as well as the navigators who help staff it.
The program — which had its funding cut by more than 60 percent by the federal government — sends its navigators across the state, educating people on the exchanges and the health care law and helping them enroll.
“At first, I was very surprised. I thought, ‘OK here we go,’” navigator Melissa Martin said. “Then when I thought about it, that sense of urgency definitely drives people to make decisions. The shortened enrollment period, the unknown and the future, once I thought through it, I realized, ‘Oh yeah that makes sense.’”
The numbers are somewhat surprising in light of what’s happened over the past nine months. In the spring, the House passed a bill to gut the Affordable Care Act — President Barack Obama’s massive health reform bill. Over the summer, the Senate tried repeatedly and in a variety of ways to strip apart the law.
After the Senate’s failures, President Donald Trump took matters into his own hands. He loosened some insurance rules and then announced that the government would stop funding cost-sharing reduction payments, which were given to insurance companies to help offset subsidies given to lower-income consumers.
A court had determined the payments were unlawful, though that decision was appealed and the payments continued on a monthly basis.
The decision to cut the funding — which Trump had suggested was coming over the summer — played a role in insurance premiums increasing in Wyoming, a Blue Cross Blue Shield spokeswoman has said.
But Hannes said the cost-sharing payment cut had another effect. There are still tax credits available for consumers, and those credits are based on the second-cheapest silver insurance plan. When Blue Cross Blue Shield — Wyoming’s sole insurer on the exchange — raised its rates in response to Trump’s move, it most heavily affected silver plans.
“Generally what happened was because those plans’ prices increased, so did the advanced premium tax credits,” he explained. “So somebody who’s eligible for credits based on their income ... could get them for very, very little every month or even for no money on their premiums.”
The doesn’t apply to everyone. The people who didn’t qualify for those tax credits could be face steep increases, Hannes acknowledged.
Still, he urged people to shop.
“I’d say the larger message from my perspective is go and shop for a plan,” he said. “Go and look, regardless of what you’ve heard or what you may think. Just go and look.”