Health insurance sign-ups held steady despite shorter enrollment period

Jack Queen
Summit Daily
Danielle McQueen, health coverage team manager for FIRC, helps a local resident navigate Colorado's health insurance exchange during one of the organization's walk-in enrollment assistance events last year.
Family and Intercultural Resource Center/Courtesy Photo

More than 165,000 people signed up for health care coverage on Colorado’s state-run health insurance exchange during the open enrollment period that ended Friday, a 3 percent increase over the same time last year despite steep premium hikes and fears of instability in insurance markets.

The enrollment period for 2018 coverage was three weeks shorter than the previous year, but 165,777 people selected plans through Connect For Health Colorado, the insurance exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act. Over the same period last year, 160,968 people had selected plans. When open enrollment closed that year on Feb. 3, sign-ups had reached 172,361 plans.

“These are positive results that show us holding steady and in line with our targets for the year,” Connect for Health Colorado CEO Kevin Patterson said in a prepared statement.

“Despite the uncertainty that created some confusion in the market, we have seen volumes that nearly match last year’s longer Open Enrollment Period. I am happy to see so many families and individuals put this protection for their health and financial well-being in place for the year.”

Connect for Health does not yet have enrollment numbers broken down by county, but local participation in enrollment assistance programs suggests sign-ups were once again strong in Summit County.

“There were definitely more people in for our enrollment assistance nights for help getting enrolled,” said Danielle McQueen, a health coverage team member for the nonprofit Family and Intercultural Resource Center.

Between Nov. 1 and Jan. 12, more than 1,000 people sought help getting enrolled through FIRC’s enrollment assistance programs, and 720 ended up selecting plans compared with 520 last year.

FIRC also drew 367 people to 10 walk-in enrollment assistance events, where the organization helped people choose the right plans and determine if they were eligible for federal assistance.

Although Republican lawmakers failed last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, there was still plenty of confusion around the future of the program, especially after the Trump administration announced it would stop funding premium subsidies in October and a health care provision was added to a tax-cut bill passed before Christmas.

“People had a lot more questions this year than last year about the future of the program,” McQueen said. “People wondered if they could still get coverage next year, or if their coverage might get cut off this year.”

While the end of premium subsidies, also known as cost-sharing payments, unnerved insurers and prompted average premium hikes of 33 percent in Colorado, insurance companies are still required to provide them to customers. Those who didn’t qualify, however, usually chose to skip insurance in 2018 to save money.

“We definitely saw the effects of increased premiums,” McQueen said. “People who didn’t qualify didn’t tend to enroll. About 95 percent of people who did enroll were eligible. … Most of those people were satisfied and didn’t feel that burn.”

The Republican tax plan, which repealed the individual mandate requiring people to buy insurance or pay a penalty, will impact coverage markets as well, but not until it takes effect next year. The change could encourage healthier people to skip health insurance, making coverage pools riskier.

“Right now you would still have to pay a penalty for not having insurance,” McQueen said. “In 2019, you won’t, and a certain number of people would probably choose not to have insurance. That would likely destabilize the markets.”

A more immediate concern for some, however, is the imminent expiration of Child Health Plan Plus, a federally funded Colorado program providing low-cost insurance to children and pregnant women who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance.

The program is set to expire in late February unless Congress renews federal funding for it. But if the program does lapse, many of those women and children would be eligible for a special enrollment period for Connect for Health.

Coloradans who experience a life-changing event — such as a marriage, divorce, birth of a child or loss of insurance — can qualify for a special 60-day enrollment window for 2018 coverage.

“That program has taken care of so many kids up here, and a lot of people would be impacted by that change,” McQueen said.