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Healthcare Insurance Under Siege…Again

October 16, 2017

In late August, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it intends to cut federal funds that help Americans sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Los Angeles Times reported that the agency “is cutting the advertising budget for the upcoming open enrollment period for individual insurance policies by a stunning 90%, to $10 million from last year’s $100 million. The HHS also is cutting funds for nonprofit groups that employ ‘navigators,’ those who help people in the individual market understand their options and sign up, by roughly 40%, to $36.8 million from $62.5 million.”

The Trump administration justified the funding cuts in a conference call with reporters by saying that “the 2016-17 open enrollment period, which ran from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31 for 2017 coverage, showed that advertising was producing ‘diminishing returns,’” the Times reported. “Enrollment actually declined in 2017 compared with the previous year,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said, “despite a doubling of the advertising budget by the Obama administration.” The officials added “that after four years of marketplace exchange operation, Americans already were sufficiently aware of the ACA and didn’t need to be reminded at the same level as before.”

However, health experts, insurance companies, and the people who helped implement the law disagree. They are alarmed. They maintain that cuts to the programs that help make Americans aware of the ACA — and to understand it — will further chip away at the law’s already imperiled health insurance markets. Bloomberg News reports that “such drastic reductions look like efforts to let the program wither, as [President] Trump has threatened, two months before sign-ups open.” They question the notion that Americans don’t need to be reminded about signing up for the ACA. “As a businessman, [President] Trump must know as well as anybody how quickly consumers can desert an unadvertised brand,” the Times says. “That’s why Coca-Cola, which may be the most ubiquitous consumer brand in the world, is still supported by more than $3 billion in ad spending per year.”

In a separate action which will also negatively impact the ACA, the Administration also cut the open enrollment period in half. Previously, people had a three-month window to sign up for health insurance under the ACA. Now, the sign-up period will only run from November 1 through December 15, so it is likely that many Americans will miss the deadline, thinking they have until the end of January to sign up. “That,” says the Times, “could make the ACA marketplace enrollment pool generally older and sicker because younger and healthier people typically are those who wait the longest to enroll—often until the very last minute. The result could be higher premiums for everyone.”

All of this could be putting your health insurance in jeopardy. What can you do if you obtain health insurance for your family through one of the health insurance exchanges? Consumer Reports offers these tips:

  • Pay attention to the new deadlines.
  • Find out whether you qualify for financial assistance. (You can start by going to healthcare.gov.)
  • Shop around. “You can qualify for tax credits only if you enroll in a marketplace policy, and you can get cost-sharing help only in a silver plan. Don’t automatically re-enroll in the same plan if you had one in 2017. Tax credits can be used for any exchange plan but are tied to the lowest-cost silver plan in your area, and that can change every year.”
  • Use a navigator. “Insurance plans are complex, and choosing the one that suits you best can be overwhelming. You can get help enrolling and comparing plans by phone or with a local in-person guide, called a navigator. At healthcare.gov, you can search by city and state or ZIP code to see a list of local organizations that can help you.” (The site lists 245 navigator organizations in the Chicago metro area.) However, with cuts in funding and a shorter enrollment period, the work of navigators will be tougher. If you plan on using a navigator, it is in your best interest to get started with a navigator as early as possible.