More than 15,000 Alabamians sign up for Marketplace health coverage in January

Enrollment in health plans through the Alabama Health Insurance Marketplace rose by more than 15,000 in January, for a four-month total of nearly 44,000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported this week.

Alabama’s increases followed the trend of nationwide enrollments, which increased by 62 percent last month to a total of 3.3 million. The Marketplace, created in the Affordable Care Act and accessible at healthcare.gov, enables people to compare health insurance plans, learn about financial assistance for which they may qualify, and sign up for coverage.

“January’s enrollment numbers are great news,” ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister said. “Thousands of people in Alabama are getting access to affordable health coverage for the first time, and we expect those numbers to continue to grow in the months ahead.”

Many Alabama organizations offering enrollment assistance are planning intensive outreach activities between now and March 31, when the first open enrollment period ends. A statewide list of enrollment assisters, searchable by ZIP code, is available in the new Bama Guide at bamacovered.org, a student leadership initiative focused on health coverage enrollment.

Forrister said he was encouraged to see more young Alabamians obtaining health coverage through the Marketplace. About 27 percent of Americans who signed up last month were between the ages of 18 and 34. That share was up from 24 percent in December. Alabama's figures followed a similar trend.

Better timing for open enrollment in future years could make enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace easier, a national health policy expert said. “Given the cash flow pinch at the holidays, most lower- and middle-income consumers wait for their tax refund before they take on new financial obligations,” said Brian Haile, a vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service who previously helped set up Tennessee’s health exchange.

In 2013, consumers wanting their Marketplace health insurance coverage to begin Jan. 1 had to sign up between Oct. 1 and Dec. 24. After early technical problems at healthcare.gov subsided, the December enrollment numbers far exceeded those of the first two months. But in a different season, the first half of the open enrollment period might have been stronger, Haile’s analysis suggests.

Haile said a better time for HHS to set future enrollment deadlines would be when lower- and middle-income people are likelier to have more money on hand. In January, people start getting their income tax refunds, and holiday spending is behind them. That means they are more able to focus on signing up for health insurance, Haile said. HHS is still considering dates for next year’s open enrollment period.

Health advocates are pushing to make sure Alabamians know they still can sign up for coverage by the March 31 deadline. People interested in more information on Marketplace plans can go to healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596.

By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Posted Feb. 14, 2014.

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