Fair, other venues offer insurance enrollment help

2014-03-21T00:00:00Z Fair, other venues offer insurance enrollment helpBy Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Attendees at this weekend’s Fourth Avenue Street Fair will be able to mix shopping and eating with starting the health-insurance enrollment process.

The street fair is one of numerous local venues with ramped-up assistance to help individuals and families get covered before the federal March 31 enrollment deadline.

Federal subsidies are available for people who qualify under the federal Affordable Care Act, but those subsidies won’t be available after March 31 unless there is a qualifying life change such as a having baby.

Help with enrollment is available at local clinics, hospitals and community centers — but most places are operating by appointment only, given the time crunch.

The next open enrollment period is Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, 2015.

Anyone who does not have health coverage as of March 31 faces a tax penalty of 1 percent of his yearly household income or $95 per person for the year — whichever is higher. The penalties will increase the following year. Some exemptions to the penalty will be available to people who fit a federal hardship definition.

A federal report says 57,000 Arizonans had selected a health plan through the federal insurance marketplace between Oct. 1 and the end of February. A vast majority of them have qualified for financial assistance, the report says.

Another 66,000 have received Medicaid through the federal marketplace, which screens people for both private and public insurance. Medicaid is government health insurance for low-income people.

Since 1.2 million Arizonans are uninsured, there is a lot of room for getting more people signed up.

“I think on a numbers perspective it has been a little slower than expected. The uptake is one of the lowest in the country,” said Kathleen Oestreich, chief executive officer of Meritus, a new, nonprofit Arizona health plan. “We’re definitely seeing an uptick. But I still think Arizona is going to have pretty low numbers for the state.”

Enrollment assistance will be available at sites in the Tucson area with extended hours through the March 31 deadline. A steady stream of people enrolled in the lobby of the University of Arizona Medical Center this week — about 19 people an hour on Thursday, officials said.

People attending this weekend’s Fourth Avenue Street Fair will be able to make enrollment appointments at the Pima County booth, said Michal Goforth, executive director of the Pima County Access Program.

Goforth said so many people have been trying to enroll in these last days of March that appointments are the best way to ensure success.

“The street fair is not really a place where you can enroll. There will be people with appointment books,” Goforth said.

Oestreich said many people are also using brokers to help them sign up and find a suitable plan. A broker will not cost the consumer anything. It’s also possible to sign up online without any assistance by going to healthcare.gov. 

“People can certainly sign up on their own, but the feedback we get is that it’s kind of complicated,” said Oestreich, a former CEO of University Physicians Healthcare health plans.

“The technology is working much better, and the processes are working. But it’s not completely self-service. The reality is that it’s pretty complicated.”

Goforth believes enrollment numbers have significantly spiked since March 1, when education and assistance efforts have increased. The federal government has placed particular focus on Arizona because of the state’s high rate of uninsured people — 20 percent of the population.

Also, 13 percent of the state’s children had no health insurance in 2012, which was one of the highest rates in the nation, according to a recent report from Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

Oestreich said Meritus will be selling individual and family plans off the federal marketplace after March 31, though those plans will not be subsidized and people who miss the enrollment deadline will face the tax penalty.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, which insures more than a million Arizonans, will not be selling individual insurance policies after the enrollment deadline, spokeswoman Anne Christenson wrote in an email. The company is stressing to consumers that enrolling between March 16 and March 31 means the policy will take effect May 1.

Like Oestreich of Meritus, Blue Cross Blue Shield says going to brokers or individual insurers can be helpful for consumers who need a plan. The company advises against buying on price alone and says it’s important to look closely at the providers and hospitals within a plan.

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