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Fewer providers, less time to enroll in health insurance plans through Affordable Care Act for 2018
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The Healthcare.gov website is seen on a computer screen Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Washington. Open enrollment begins Nov. 1.

A shortened enrollment period, federal cuts to advertising and the fact that Hall County residents looking to purchase individual health insurance plans will have just one provider offering coverage in 2018 has left advocacy groups scrambling to assist in signing up consumers.

“By cutting back on these resources, our initial reaction was concern,” said Laura Colbert, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, an advocacy group based in Atlanta. “We think that consumers will see more barriers to enrollment.”

The open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act marketplace begins Wednesday and ends Dec. 15. The ACA created a network of market exchanges where those without health insurance could buy plans.

Open enrollment begins Wednesday
Enrollment in the Affordable Care Act federal marketplace exchange runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Visit www.healthcare.gov/quick-guide/dates-and-deadlines/ for more information.

In Hall, 17.6 percent of residents remain uninsured, according to 2016 census figures, or about 34,475 people. But that’s down from 20.7 percent of residents in 2013 prior to the full rollout of the ACA.

The county’s uninsured rate, however, is higher than averages for the state, at 12.9 percent, and nation, at 12.3 percent.

According to a recent Gallup survey, the number of Americans without health insurance increased 0.6 percent between July and October, a 1.4 percentage point rise since the end of last year. That represents 3.5 million fewer Americans with health coverage since the last quarter of 2016.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield will no longer be offering individuals plans in Hall and dozens of other counties through the federal marketplace exchange — or anywhere else. About 200,000 Georgians will be impacted.

Alliant is now the only carrier offering individual plans in Hall next year. There were five providers in 2016, by comparison.

“They’re the only show in town,” said Brett Fowler, vice president and partner at Turner, Wood & Smith insurance in Gainesville.

In 2014, there were five providers participating in the individual marketplaces across Georgia.

That number grew to nine in 2015 but has slipped precariously since, leaving just four come 2018.

Colbert said enrollment assisters are an especially important tool for those new to the federal exchange or who need help signing up as the fate of the ACA remains uncertain.

And her organization is ramping up its social media presence to spread the word about enrollment dates, while also helping to bring together partner organizations, direct services and enrollers to share resources and amplify their message.

With fewer resources and a limited timeframe to work with, “I think this year everyone sees the importance of working together,” Colbert said, adding that she wouldn’t be surprised if enrollment in the ACA marketplace decreased in Hall and across Georgia for 2018.

But it’s those individuals who do not qualify for the federal subsidies the ACA provides that may be hit the hardest by the loss of Blue Cross, according to Fowler.

“That’s because subsidies rise with premiums,” he said. “Costs are going up tremendously.”

Fowler said some individuals might choose not to buy health insurance and instead face a tax penalty. And small business owners might also feel the biggest pinch.

But group insurance rates are rising slower than individual plans, Fowler said, and carriers are growing more lenient on eligibility requirements. This may be a short-term solution for some.

“Do they pay their mortgage or do they pay their health insurance?” Fowler asked rhetorically.

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