Va., U.S. health care sign-ups accelerating
BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Thursday, February 13, 2014
Almost 30,000 Virginians enrolled in health insurance plans through the new federal marketplace in January, an increase of two-thirds over sign-ups in the difficult first three months of the program.
More than 1.1 million people enrolled in federal and state marketplaces across the country last month, although enrollment is uneven among the states, according to numbers released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Total enrollment through the end of January was 74,199 in Virginia — compared with 44,676 in the first three months of the program — with a total of 3.3 million across the country. The national total was still short of the administration's goal of 4.4 million enrolled by the end of January. No projections are available for Virginia.
''Wow!'' exclaimed state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who said the increased participation was not unexpected because of the number of uninsured — about1million people in Virginia.
Watkins is pushing the General Assembly to create a private marketplace in Virginia that would provide health coverage for people now covered by the federal exchange and hundreds of thousands of people who would be eligible for Medicaid if the state expanded its program.
''You've got a lot of folks out there who are in the position that either they don't have a job or the job they have doesn't provide insurance,'' he said.
People who enrolled through mid-January began receiving benefits Feb. 1, while coverage will begin March 1 for people who signed up in the latter half of the month.
Federal officials focused on the increase in the number of people ages 18 to 34 who signed up for health plans — about 318,000 in January, a 65 percent increase from the previous three months.
Participation by ''young invincibles'' is crucial to the success of the marketplaces, which are a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act. Young, healthy people help reduce the risk in insurance pools, presumably reducing pressure on monthly premiums.
In Virginia, 28 percent of those who have enrolled are 18 to 34 years old, or more than 20,000 people since enrollment opened Oct. 1. Almost half of enrollees, 48 percent, are 45 to 64 years old.
The increases come as a relief to advocates of the federal marketplace, which operates in Virginia and 35 other states that chose not to run their own insurance exchanges. The federal marketplace stumbled badly in the first months, prompting frantic improvements by the government.
''I think that's excellent,'' said Jill A. Hanken, senior attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. ''It really does reflect the improvements in the federal website.''
The law center oversees nine offices across Virginia that act as ''navigators'' for consumers to help them decide about coverage in the new system.
''They're working faster and more successfully that they had been in the early months,'' Hanken said.
Women accounted for 56 percent of those who enrolled in the marketplace in Virginia in the first four months.
Most people, 61 percent, chose the ''silver plan,'' which provides benefits that cover 70 percent of the actuarial cost to participants. The higher the value on the tier of metal-designated plans means the less that participants will have to pay out of pocket for services.
In Virginia, 78 percent of those who enrolled will receive financial assistance in paying their premiums. Federal tax credits are available on a sliding scale for people who earn 100 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $11,490 for an individual and $23,550 for a family of four. People earning less than 250 percent of the poverty level also can receive help with cost-sharing payments.
Nationwide, Connecticut was the nation's overachiever, signing up more than twice the number of residents it had been projected to enroll by the end of January. Massachusetts, which pioneered the approach President Barack Obama took in his law, is at the bottom of the list, having met only 5 percent of its target.
Among the states meeting or exceeding expectations, New York was the biggest. Its 211,290 signups represented more than 1½ times its goal. Six Republican-led states — Florida, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin— were on pace or better.
''Enrollment will continue to increase because it's easier to sign up,'' said Lynn Blewett, director of the State Health Data Access Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota. ''What everybody hopes is that we see more young people and families with young children enrolling, to give the insurance pools a healthy mix of younger and older people.''
''It's very, very encouraging news,'' said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. ''We're seeing a healthy growth in enrollment.''
However, officials were unable to say how many of those who signed up were previously uninsured — the ultimate test of Obama's hard-fought overhaul. And they don't know how many have sealed the deal by paying their premiums.
At the same time, a new national survey indicated that the share of Americans with health coverage rose to the highest point since the recession in 2008. Just 16 percent of Americans lacked coverage in January, compared with 18 percent last year, according to the Gallup poll.
Pollsters cautioned that the measure of insurance coverage is volatile, but they noted that if the trend continues, it may suggest the health law is having an impact.
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