Enrollment deadline looms on federal health insurance exchange

Tegan Hanlon
Bill Roth

In less than two weeks, the health insurance marketplace will close, shutting out Alaskans until the next enrollment cycle and imposing fines on some of the uninsured.

Nearly 5 percent of the 139,422 Alaska residents determined eligible to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act have actually done so in the first five months since healthcare.gov launched on Oct. 1. With 6,666 enrolled as of the end of February, Alaska has the fifth lowest number of enrollees in the country, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

On Tuesday, a cadre of health officials had a news conference in Anchorage to get the word out about the March 31 enrollment deadline. Some said that Alaska's rural landscape hampered outreach efforts, but still praised a recent increase in numbers after a rocky first two months.

"I think that getting the information and education out to Alaskans has been an incredible challenge," said Tyann Boling, the chief operating officer of Enroll Alaska, a brokerage started in 2013 to help people sign up for health insurance. "We have a long ways to go. We know that open enrollment starts next on Nov. 15. We're going to be here and we're going to be ready to tackle that."

In October, the federal government debuted a malfunctioning website and only 53 Alaskans signed on. The next month, that number climbed by 345 people, then 2,958 signed up in December, with another 1,500 or so in both January and February.

"So the pace is picking up and we're pleased about that," said Susan Johnson, northwest regional director of the U.S. health department.

Of the more than 6,000 Alaskans who have chosen a plan, 88 percent received a federal subsidy toward their monthly premium, she said.

Keith Ferrari, 61, moved from Seattle to Anchorage to take care of his 81-year-old mother, Mae. He hasn't had insurance for years and with an annual salary of just over $14,000, he said he couldn't afford it..

Ferrari has been to the emergency room four times in the past 13 months, once for a seizure and once for a severe allergic reaction while clearing debris for a landscaping company. He's still paying off the bills even after the hospital waived more than 50 percent of the fees.

"People like me are draining the system. I was adding cost to the system," he said.

But in November, he signed up for a silver, or middle-of-the-road, health insurance plan, on healthcare.gov. He pays $38 a month for insurance through MODA Health. The government picks up $927 per month. Ferrari has a $100 deductible and a $25 copayment.

"It's a nice feeling that I don't feel like I'm a freeloader. I don't feel that anxiety," Ferrari said in the home he shares with his mother, a folder nearby filled with his insurance information.

Households that make between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for a federal subsidy. For a four-person family, that equates to an income of between $29,500 and $117,700.

Eligible Alaskans who do not sign up for health insurance before March 31 will pay a fine when filing tax returns next year of either one percent of the household's annual income or $95 per person ($47.50 per child under 18), whichever is higher. The penalty grows each year.

Still, after March 31, there are a number of qualifying events that allow people to re-enter the marketplace before Nov. 15, like marriage or losing a job. Alaska Natives and American Indians can enroll on a month-by-month basis. Some people can file for exemptions from the health insurance mandate, including those who were evicted, are homeless or have filed for bankruptcy, to avoid the fine.

In the next 12 days or so, the Anchorage health clinic, United Way and Enroll Alaska are rolling out a series of events to help people enroll in health insurance as the deadline nears.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.