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Premiums rising 34 percent for most popular health plan

The Healthcare.gov website is seen on a computer screen Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Washington. The Trump administration says consumers can start previewing plans and premiums online for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act in 2018. Open enrollment starts Nov. 1. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Though state-level numbers aren't in, insurance companies and those who help people get coverage say the process is working smoothly in the open enrollment period for signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s going fine, we have lots of folks signing up,” said Karen Early, director of operations for Montana Health Co-op, one of the three companies that sell plans on the exchange here. “We know we’re very busy, we just don’t have numbers yet.”

Early, representatives from other insurance companies and the state Auditor and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance all said they don’t track enrollment numbers during the enrollment period, which runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. But nationwide, enrollment numbers are up.

Through Nov. 18, the third week of the enrollment period, 2.27 million people across the country had enrolled in a health care plan, according to the most recent information released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid last week. Enrollment data for last year combined the third and fourth week of the enrollment period, and show that by the fourth week 2.137 million had enrolled.

In Montana, 11,365 have signed up for coverage so far this period.

This year's enrollment period is shorter than last year's, which ran through Jan. 1. There was also less money spent on promoting the period and funding programs that help people navigate the application process. And the federal website, www.healthcare.gov, where people can sign up, has more planned outages than in years past.

In addition to the Health Co-Op, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana and PacificSource also offer plans on the Montana exchange mandated under the Affordable Care Act.

Last year the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid reported 58,114 Montanans signed up for plans during open enrollment. That includes:

• 16,710 from Billings,

• 9,732 from Butte-Bozeman,

• 549 from Glendive,

• 8,046 from Great Falls,

• 2,710 from Helena, 

• 20,439 from Missoula.

Earlier this month, a spokesman for the state insurance commissioner said enrollment has been functioning smoothly and the office has seen a normal volume of calls with questions. He also said that people who already have plans should shop around because plans change from year to year.

Marguerite Jodry, a navigator with Planned Parenthood in Billings who helps people sign up for coverage, said earlier this month that enrollment is going really well so far.

“We’re very busy,” she said. “Our assisters around the state are very busy. And I talked with colleagues at St. Vincent and Billings Clinic and they’re busy, too.”

It seems people are paying closer attention to the ACA than they have in the past.

“A lot of people feel uncertain so they call us for help,” Jodry said. “Fortunately 2018 is on lockdown so we know what we have to deal with.”

On the plus said, she said, the marketplace website and call center are both working with no glitches.

Early, however, said the Co-op has had people report glitches with healthcare.gov.

“We’ve had a couple glitches from the (federal) side,” she said. “People type to see if a drug is covered and nothing comes up. We’ve had the same kind of problem with the provider listing.”

If people want to know if a drug or doctor is covered under a plan, Early recommended going to an insurer’s website to check.

Todd Lovshin, vice president of PacificSource, said some of their customers also got incorrect information about whether a provider is in or out of network, but that information was corrected quickly.

Stephanie Hess, a policy administrator with the insurance commissioner's office, said Tuesday the office has not heard any consumer concerns regarding open enrollment.

Jodry said a majority of people who come in for an appointment sign up while they’re in the office.

“We have some people who need some questions answered and then feel confident to do the process on their own,” she said. They also may get help filling out the application, but take it home and talk with their family before they make the care selection on their own.

“The application can be daunting so it’s nice to know they’re doing it correctly,” Jodry said.

Compared to prior enrollment periods, Jodry feels like she’s busier.

“People are being more proactive, they know the deadline is coming up,” Jodry said. “It remains to be seen whether we get more or the same number. It could be the same number of people crammed into half the time.”

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Certified application counselors at RiverStone Health in Billings have seen steady traffic, but have not swamped, said J. “Scooter” Gates, one of four counselors at the community health clinic. The volume has been consistent over the past two years.

“With the marketplace doing automatic enrollment, it cut down our volume even last year,” Gates said.

The counselors have scheduled 12 to 14 appointments through the week and are booked out through Nov. 22. Less than half of the people who have come in have actually enrolled, she said. They take home the information and think about it.

“So we’re not seeing as many actual enrollments as we have in the past,” Gates said.

She thinks the main reason for that is the cost.

“The premiums have gone up to where they’re not sure that’s the best option for them,” she said.

Some people use the window shopping tool on the website. By plugging in their age, household income, whether they use tobacco and their Zip Code, they can get an idea of what plans are available to them and at what cost.

Some higher deductible bronze plans are being offered again for 2018, Gates said. Depending on an individual’s income, it can come with no cost to the consumer.

And though it has a higher deductible, it meets the requirements for having health care.

“I was pleased to see those still out there,” she said. “I wondered if it would be available with what’s going on.”

Early said it’s too early to say if overall enrollment statewide will increase, but she predicted the Co-op’s may. She also said that every year of the enrollment period, the online system works better and there are more people who just auto-renew their plans from the previous year.

Lovshin said enrollment has been "nice and steady."

"It's been a good open enrollment so far," he said. "We expect to maintain our membership if not grow a little bit."

Lovshin said he's seeing in the early numbers a transition to more bronze plans, the cheapest option, instead of silver plans, which cost more. But he said it's too soon to tell if that's a trend or if people who get silver plans just haven't submitted their paperwork.

At Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the company that insures the most people on the Montana exchange, divisional vice president of external affairs John Doran earlier this month said it’s hard to hold this year’s period up against past years and make a prediction. He also reported no complaints with the federal website.

“Comparing this year’s open enrollment activity to prior years is difficult since the duration of this year’s open enrollment period is shorter,'' he said. "We are experiencing steady call volumes in our sales call centers and in our brokers’ offices from both new and renewing members. It’s still very early in the enrollment process, but for the first week applications are tracking to forecast.”

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