Residents face shorter health care enrollment window

Facing a much shorter window to enroll in a health care insurance plan — enrollment ends on Dec. 15 — many Alaskans may have some questions or need help.

Jessie Menkens, the coverage initiatives coordinator for Alaska Primary Care Association, was in Homer on Sunday to provide just that. At an event held at the Homer United Methodist Church, participants could work with Menkens to get their questions about health care insurance answered.

“My primary goal with this visit is to just heighten awareness and to make sure that this deadline doesn’t take anyone by surprise,” she said.

Menkens also recently did outreach in Soldotna. She said there’s a push behind getting people help and getting them enrolled in a health care plan because the window to do so was shortened from three months to six weeks this year by the federal government.

“We thought that was going to happen next year,” Menkens said, explaining her department was under the impression there would be more warning to let people know. “And it has come as quite a bit of a surprise to a lot of Alaskans.”

According to numbers received by the Alaska Primary Care Association, there has been a 49 percent increase in enrollment by Alaskans compared to this same time last year. Menkens said part of that may be linked to uncertainty regarding the future of health care in the United States, which may be spurring Alaskans to enroll while they can.

“There’s a concern around whether or not plans will continue to be available given some of the activities in Washington and the uncertainty,” she said.

At the same time, Menkens said another 11,000 to 12,000 need to be enrolled in order to match what Alaska saw last year.

One aspect of reaching that goal is answering people’s questions about the process and concerns about health care insurance to ease their experience of signing up.

“I think a big concern that is always in everyone’s mind here in Alaska is cost,” Menkens said.

Thanks to a state program, however, many Alaskans could actually see an approximately 20 percent decrease in their rates this coming year, she said. The state-operated Alaska Reinsurance Program covers claims in the individual market for those with one or more of 33 high cost conditions to help stabilize their premiums. The Alaska Legislature in 2016 approved allocating $55 million for the program, which essentially helps stabilize the individual insurance market by providing reinsurance to a small pool of people who are considered fairly high risk.

Thanks to that program, some Alaskans will see a decrease in their insurance rate as opposed to a rate hike, which was anticipated, Menkens said, with the caveat that cost saving reduction payments are no longer being made.

“Even though the federal government is not making those cost saving reduction payments to insurance companies, the insurance companies are still obliged to extend that level of support to plan holders,” she said.

Another aspect of Menkens’ outreach is getting in touch with those who have opted to re-enroll in a health care plan automatically. She said it can still be a good idea to log onto one’s profile on the Affordable Care Act’s website and evaluate one’s options.

Sometimes, she said, people will find that they are actually eligible for a better plan than they were at this time last year.

For those who were not able to attend Sunday’s event in Homer, Menkens pointed to a local resource, SVT Health and Wellness, where there are two staff members trained in assistance with the health insurance market. They provide free help to anyone, regardless of whether or not they are an SVT patient. Residents can call 226-2228 to set up an appointment. For more information on enrolling in a health insurance plan, visit healthcare.gov or getcoveredalaska.org.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@homernews.com.

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