Local insurance agents will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand for their services this year after the federal government shortened the enrollment period for the health insurance exchanges to 45 days.
“It’s fast and furious,” said Doug Beamer, a partner at Wheatland Financial Services in Pendleton.
The enrollment period for people to sign up or switch insurance plans runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Last year it ran twice as long, through Jan. 31. The deadline applies to anyone who buys their health insurance through the insurance marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act because they do not get health insurance through an employer or the government.
Computer-savvy Americans can log in to www.healthcare.gov and shop for and enroll in plans on their own. But many people prefer to consult with an insurance agent before making the decision, and Beamer said with the time crunch this year they should not wait until the last minute to do so. The enrollment period also overlaps with the Medicare Part D enrollment period, which ends Dec. 7.
“Everything is power-packed into this period,” Beamer said. “We are going to work some Saturdays and we’ll stay late and work through lunch and do everything we can.”
To help speed appointments along, Beamer said people can help by getting their own login and username set up before they arrive and making sure they have their financial information readily available.
A majority of Americans receive their health insurance through their employer, or through government-sponsored Medicaid or Medicare. The rest — including those who are self-employed — can sign up for plans via the Affordable Care Act health exchange. In most cases, depending on income level, people who sign up for health insurance via the exchange can qualify for tax credits to help cover some of their premium costs.
The enrollment period open now is the only time they can sign up for a new plan or change to a different plan for 2018 unless they have a “qualifying life event” during the year such as marriage or moving to a new state. Those who already have insurance through the exchanges can have their plan automatically renewed for the next year, but the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services recommends that they still log on to their account to update their financial information and compare plans.
“People who do so, instead of automatically being renewed, often save money,” the department wrote in a news release.
That may be particularly true this year. Changes by the Trump administration, including a decision to end government payments to insurance companies to cover the cost of people who struggle to afford their co-payments and deductibles, have cause the insurance marketplace to behave differently than usual. Some “silver” plans will be more expensive than some “gold” plans with better coverage, for example.
Anyone shopping for insurance on the exchanges or seeking help to do so should be ready to provide information about their income, and should bring a list of any doctors that they want to continue seeing. Shoppers can enter providers into healthcare.gov to narrow down their plan options to ones that include those providers in their network.
For those who want help navigating the system, a list of licensed health insurance agents in the area can be found online at oregonhealthcare.gov/gethelp. The website also lists community partners who will assist in the sign-up process for free, including Good Shepherd Medical Center, St. Anthony Hospital and Umatilla County Human Services offices in Hermiston, Pendleton and Milton-Freewater. Oregon Health Insurance Marketplace staff can also answer questions by phone toll free at 1-855-268-3767.
Repeated attempts by Republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as sharp cuts to advertising and “navigators” helping people enroll, have caused some confusion for consumers about whether they can still sign up for health insurance. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) said in a statement that it was “disappointing that people out there are sowing confusion and trying to dissuade fellow Americans from getting health coverage.”
“It’s critical that everyone in our communities knows that this is the window to sign up through the ACA marketplace,” he said. “With the financial assistance available through the exchange, many Americans will be able to find affordable, quality coverage.”