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Open enrollment began Tuesday; website, call center overloaded with activity

By KATIE FITZPATRICK

Staff writer

The first day of open enrollment for health care insurance through the Maryland Health Connection kicked off Tuesday, and officials are stepping up their education outreach efforts to inform people about the Affordable Care Act.

Maryland residents who don’t have affordable health insurance or cannot find it through work or on their own will have access to coverage through Maryland Health Connection, a new health insurance marketplace that makes it easier for residents to shop, compare and enroll in health care coverage.

The open enrollment period lasts through March 31, 2014.

MHC announced the connector program in May, and Calvert Healthcare Solutions was named the connector for the Southern Maryland region. CHS will assist with educating the public, outreach services, awareness, enrollment procedures, eligibility and enrollment. The organization is partnering with Health Partners in Charles County, Walden Sierra in St. Mary’s County and Greater Baden Medical Services in both counties, which provide outreach services in their respective counties.

MHC and Calvert Healthcare Solutions officials were on site at Calvert Memorial Hospital from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday to raise awareness about health care reform and the availability of affordable health insurance.

“Calvert Healthcare Solutions is conducting outreach education,” said Dean Schleicher, assistant program director at CHS, “but one of the things that we really need to do is just raise awareness to changes in the health care system.”

In a separate interview Wednesday, Jon Frank, president of Prince Frederick-based Jon S. Frank and Associates Inc., an employee benefits brokerage that advises small and medium-sized businesses on employee benefits with a primary focus on health plan management, said the Affordable Care Act requires every U.S. citizen and legal resident to have health insurance by March 31, 2014, or face a penalty. The penalty “doesn’t come into play” until an individual files their 2014 taxes, he said.

Individuals without health insurance coverage will be required to pay a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of household income in 2014; of $325 or 2 percent of household income in 2015; and of $695 or 2.5 percent of household income in 2016. The fee will be increased annually by the cost of living adjustment after 2016.

Subsidies to help with premiums are available for households with income of about 134 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, Frank said, adding that the subsidy is an advance premium tax credit.

Open enrollment to sign up for Medicaid and qualified health plans through the connection began Tuesday, and due to the “enormous interest” in the program, the website to register for the program became overloaded and the call center phone line rang busy.

“One of the things I think we found out [Tuesday] was there was just enormous interest,” Schleicher said, “so even the minor glitches that we had were compounded by the number of people who tried to log on.”

One possible explanation for the website’s high-volume traffic is that individuals were comparing their current rates offered through their employer to the rates they would get if purchasing health insurance through the exchange.

Frank said anyone currently offered health insurance plans through their employer will not find better rates offered through the exchange, because they will not be eligible to receive a subsidy, even if an individual’s income level qualifies them for a subsidy.

“You won’t qualify for a subsidy on the exchange,” Frank said. “… You’re going to be looking at the price of the offer from your employer, which includes the subsidy that they’re providing, versus the raw rates, not the subsidized rates, through the exchange. … If you’ve got an offer from your employer that meets all the criteria, you can’t get the subsidy [through the exchange].”

Many media outlets were reporting Tuesday that due to the high-volume traffic on the websites and the busy phone lines, people could not sign up for health insurance through the exchange.

“Well, that’s not true,” Schleicher said. “We have navigators and assistors in Calvert County to enroll people. … If you can’t get online and do it and you can’t get through on the phone, there are in-person ways to do it.”

Four navigators and four assistors are available at CHS, the Department of Social Services, the health department and all of the county libraries throughout the week, Schleicher said. He said the navigators and assistors are available to answer questions as well as enroll individuals in qualified health plans.

“We need to make ourselves available to make it easy for people to enroll, so that’s what we’ll do,” he said.

Although the website and call centers may still be experiencing high-volume traffic, Schleicher said people also can sign up via paper application, although it is “not the ideal way” to register.

The online registration provides information about financial assistance available to individuals, Schleicher said, and how premiums are affected by financial assistance. That information is not immediately available when people sign up using a paper application, he said.

“If they fill out the paper form, it’s a two-step process,” he said. “We get them in the system through the application, and then we go back and we talk to them about financial assistance and the enrollment options available to them. We’d really like to do it all at once … but if they have to fill out [paper] applications, they won’t fall through the system.”

Paper applications can be obtained at CHS at 234 Merrimac Ct., Prince Frederick, and at any of the county libraries, at the Calvert County Health Department or at the Department of Social Services when CHS officials are at those locations. Schleicher said people also can call CHS at 1-855-339-3007 to process a paper application over the phone.

Schleicher said CHS will continue its education outreach efforts at various events throughout the county.

“Our challenge is to get out there and advertise who we are and what we do. It’s a huge challenge, and we’re going to be doing that right through the end of open enrollment,” Schleicher said. “The raising awareness and the education, it’s huge, and I think our success will be based on how well we convey the message of what we can do.”

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com