More than 9,000 Alaskans picked health insurance plans through the state’s federally run marketplace by Dec. 15, the deadline to receive coverage starting Jan. 1, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported this week.
Alaska tied Maine and North Dakota for the lowest percentage of “new consumers” choosing an insurance plan during the first month of open enrollment, with 39 percent of 9,325 buyers new to the marketplace and the rest re-enrolling in coverage acquired last year. About 91 percent received financial assistance, or a subsidy, to cover their premium costs, according to the HHS report released Tuesday.
“Overall, we’re feeling really great about the response that we’re seeing here in Alaska,” said Jessie Menkens, the navigator program coordinator for the Alaska Primary Care Association, one of the state’s two agencies receiving federal funds to help consumers with enrollment. “I think Alaskans are certainly engaged. There’s a lot of need out there.”
In November, HHS estimated roughly 139,000 Alaskans did not have health insurance, according to Susan Johnson, HHS regional director. In an email, Johnson called Alaska’s enrollment numbers “strong.”
During the first enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act — which got off to a rocky start in October 2013 — nearly 13,000 Alaskanssigned up for health insurance through healthcare.gov. About 88 percent received subsidies, according to HHS data.
Subsidies may be an option for Alaskans who earn between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level. This time around, that’s between $14,580 and $58,320 for a single Alaskan and between $29,820 and $119,280 for a family of four.
Those who received a subsidy during the last open enrollment period must re-enroll in their plans during the current enrollment cycle in order to continue receiving the discount, said Melanie Coon, Premera Blue Cross spokesperson. Premera is one of two health insurance companies offering plans on Alaska’s marketplace.
On Wednesday, Coon said Premera was “very encouraged” by Alaska’s enrollment numbers but that it was “too soon to tell” if the newly enrolled Alaskans would help ease the 2015 rate increases.
“It’s going to be painful for a lot of Alaskans who are going to have to pay those higher rates, and we understand that,” Coon said. “That’s why we’re going to want to come up with a longer-term solution.”
The Alaska Division of Insurance announced in September that rates on individual plans under the Affordable Care Act would increase between 22 and 40 percent. The state blamed the increases on the small number of Alaskans in the individual market. Premera said that within that small number, there weren’t enough healthy people to balance out those with greater medical needs. Coon said she did not know Wednesday how many Alaskans would have to join the insurance pool to shrink the rate increase.
For now, Alaskans who want health insurance through the marketplace or want to avoid a federal tax penalty next year have until Feb. 15 to sign up for a plan. The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, mandates that everyone carry health insurance or pay a fee, though the act did include a number of exemptions, most tied to financial hardships.
The fines begin in 2015 when the IRS will require all taxpayers to report whether they had health insurance in 2014. The fine for not having coverage (and not qualifying for an exemption) is either 1 percent of annual household income or $95 per person ($47.50 per child under 18), whichever is higher.
In 2016, the fines increase substantially. People who did not have health insurance in 2015 will have to pay the higher of either 2 percent of their annual household income or $325 per person ($162.50 per child under 18). After that, the fine increases to 2.5 percent of income or $695 per person.
Aimee Crocker, operations manager at insurance brokerage Enroll Alaska, encouraged Alaskans to create an account on healthcare.gov and shop around.
“Don’t wait until the last date — we still have time,” she said.
Compared to 2013, when website glitches hampered signups, Enroll Alaska in 2014 had scheduled more appointments to help people navigate the marketplace, Crocker said. By Wednesday the affiliate of Northrim Benefits Group had assisted roughly 1,100 people.
For more information on health insurance enrollment, call the Alaska Primary Care Association at 907-929-2722, Enroll Alaska at 855-385-5550 or the United Way of Anchorage at 211 or 800-478-2221.