Insurers, regulators say Montana health coverage open enrollment running smoothly

(HELENA) It’s been about five weeks since the start of the open enrollment period for Montanans who get their health insurance through the individual exchange created by the federal Affordable Care Act. So far, state regulators and insurers agree: The number of people signing up for coverage on the exchange is close to what was expected.

“We’ve seen a lot of activity since day one, a lot of interest in our customer service lines and our agent offices, looking at the benefit designs for this year, looking at the costs for this year,” said John Doran, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana’s vice president of external affairs.

One week remains in the enrollment period, which opened on Nov. 1 and will continue through Dec. 15. Three companies are offering individual health plans this year – Blue Cross Blue Shield, PacificSource and the Montana Health Co-Op.

This year, the open enrollment period was roughly half as long as in previous years, after a change in a federal government rule. But State Auditor Matt Rosendale, Montana’s insurance and securities commissioner, said it doesn’t appear the shorter window will affect the number of people who sign up.

“The insurers have told me that everything is going smooth; the numbers are coming in where they anticipated them to be,” Rosendale said.

As of Dec. 2, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported 18,428 Montanans had signed up for plans through the HealthCare.gov website. But that number doesn’t include others who extended policies by working directly with insurance companies.

“Typically we’ve had upwards of 50,000 to 60,000 Montana members who’ve enrolled in the ACA exchanges,” said Doran. “A lot of times it’s difficult to tell the official numbers until folks have finalized their applications and they’ve actually paid their premiums for January.”

In addition, anyone who already has a health plan from the individual market will be automatically re-enrolled in their current plan – or the closest available option – if they don’t make a selection during the open enrollment period.

“The most important thing for folks to remember is that you still have an opportunity to shop,” Rosendale said.

Rosendale pointed people to montanahealthanswers.com, which includes details about the available plans, including premiums and benefits.

Montana insurers have made a number of changes to their plans this year. Each company also raised its average rates between 13 and 20 percent, after the Trump administration decided to end federal subsidies for many policies on the individual exchange.

Rosendale, a Republican and an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, said he wants the federal government to loosen its requirements for health care coverage. He said that could eventually lead to less expensive options for consumers in Montana.

In the meantime, though, Rosendale said the best thing for Montanans to do is thoroughly research the options they have today.

“Make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples, so that you get the health care that addresses your needs,” he said. “Then find the plan that best accommodates your budget.”

Doran echoed that advice, and also encouraged people not to wait until Dec. 15 to make their decisions.

“We’ve seen in previous years, the last couple of days of open enrollment, the website can really get a crush of activity, which tends to slow things down,” he said. “You want to make sure that you don’t miss the deadline opportunity to enroll.”