212 Montanans Sign Up Through Health Exchange

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Some 212 people in Montana signed up for health insurance in the first month of the U.S. government-run online marketplace that has been plagued by technical problems, federal officials said Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the first nationwide and state-by-state enrollment numbers for the insurance exchanges since their Oct. 1 debut.

Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 2, 2,683 people in Montana completed applications for coverage for 5,202 people, according to the federal agency’s statistics. More than 3,800 of those individuals were determined to be eligible to enroll in a plan through the marketplace, and of that group, 1,711 were eligible for financial assistance.

But just 212 people in the state actually completed the process and selected a plan in that month. Another 457 were determined to be eligible for coverage through Medicaid.

“I don’t’ think you have to be a math genius to figure out the numbers. They weren’t great, but they weren’t surprising,” said Jerry Dworak, president and CEO of Montana Health Co-op, one of three insurers in the state offering plans through the exchange.

But things are improving, and the co-op is signing between 15 and 20 more people each day, he said. Based on the co-op’s enrollments and conversations with other insurers, he estimated the number of new customers in the state may have doubled in the past two weeks.

After Republican-led lawmakers rejected proposals to create a Montana-run exchange earlier this year, the state became one of 36 that relied on the federal one at www.healthcare.gov .

Problems with the website have prevented most people from completing applications or even registering with the site in some cases, and just 26,794 people from those states signed up for plans in the first month.

Lindsay Love, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Montana, one of the three groups that received federal grants to help people navigate the new marketplace, said the low Montana enrollment numbers are a reflection of those problems.

“I would say that those numbers don’t accurately express or represent the interest of Montanans,” she said.

Planned Parenthood provided outreach and education to more than 1,000 Montanans, and enrollment assistance to hundreds more, she said.

The exchanges are a key part of the nation’s new health care law and are meant to help uninsured or underinsured people find coverage. Subsidies are available for people with incomes less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The enrollment period is open for coverage that begins Jan. 1, and most uninsured people who aren’t enrolled after March will face a tax penalty in 2014 that will rise in subsequent years.

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