Presented by United Way of Anchorage
Alaskans in need of health care coverage who were previously found ineligible may now qualify for affordable insurance after a recent expansion of the Affordable Care Act widened access to millions of people across the U.S.
For Alaska, the expansion provides a significant increase in United Way’s Healthcare Navigator program, funding a robust team that is helping people sign up for affordable care, year-round. The changes also remove key obstacles for families with employer insurance, as well as higher-income Alaskans.
Open enrollment ends Jan. 15 — here is what to know and how to find help.
A new team is here to help
Healthcare.gov is the online portal that provides insurance quotes and federal tax credits through the Affordable Care Act. A record number of people signed up for insurance on Healthcare.gov in 2022, with nearly 6 million people receiving newly gained coverage.
When Alaskans need help — whether an individual, family, or business — United Way’s healthcare navigators are experts in application assistance for both Healthcare.gov and Medicaid, said Jane Straight, navigator program director at United Way.
Becky Hallstrom is a longtime healthcare navigator in Anchorage who has helped people of all backgrounds and stages of life find affordable coverage. She knows not everyone is comfortable asking for help.
“Give us a chance,” Hallstrom said. “And then we can give you the answers, without having to go through all of the mistakes that most people have to make to get there.” That chance begins with a call to 2-1-1.
For several years, funding for navigators decreased and Hallstrom worked mostly alone. Then in 2021, United Way secured federal funding to field 10 navigators. And in October 2022, more funding and regulation changes to the Affordable Care Act further increased Alaskans’ access to health insurance.
Twelve staff members in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Soldotna, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are now helping people sign up, both in-person and through virtual meetings.
More than 20,000 Alaskans receive affordable coverage through Healthcare.gov. Navigators assist with questions, application reviews and free interpretation services.
This year, open enrollment ends Jan. 15. However, Alaskans who have a life-changing event, like having a baby or losing employment, can qualify for special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment.
“We’re going to have tons of people available to help them sign up or figure out what their next step is,” Hallstrom said.
Because Healthcare.gov serves as the online portal for both Medicaid and Affordable Care Act insurance, sometimes questions can be confusing and lead to people being incorrectly denied.
One error can be the difference in receiving a quote that is accurate and affordable, or one that is miscalculated and overpriced.
“It’s our job to keep people from those misunderstandings,” Hallstrom said. “Let us help you understand what your options are.”
New options for Alaska families, and higher incomes now qualify
As part of the changes, Alaskans with higher incomes now qualify for help with monthly insurance premiums.
Previously, Alaskans who made more than a fixed amount were offered no tax credits and steep insurance premiums.
“It was cost prohibitive,” Straight said.
Now, a formula has replaced the previous one-size-fits-all approach, and the ceiling has been raised so Alaskans with higher incomes qualify. The result is that more Alaskans can qualify for zero-premium or low out-of-pocket premium plans.
“More people today are eligible to get a tax credit,” Straight said. “If it’s been a few years since you checked it out … you ought to check it out again.”
Alaska families with employer-provided health insurance also have new options.
Previously, if a member of the household had employer insurance, and that insurance offered coverage for dependents, no one in the household qualified for coverage under Healthcare.gov — even if the dependent coverage was unaffordable.
Now, that condition has been removed. If employer-offered dependent coverage is unaffordable, your family may qualify for a tax credit on healthcare.gov even when you have employer coverage.
Free advice for employers: ‘What an amazing opportunity’
For Wild Scoops owner Elissa Brown, United Way’s navigators have provided invaluable advice and affordable healthcare options for her team.
Brown opened Wild Scoops, a popular Anchorage ice cream shop and test kitchen, in 2015.
Most of the company’s employees are just entering the workforce and are still on their parents’ insurance. But as Wild Scoops expanded, it saw a developing need for affordable healthcare coverage for a portion of their staff. In 2018, Brown reached out to United Way for help.
“It was an amazing opportunity to be able to have trusted experts to advise you, for free, on complicated federal regulations,” Brown said.
Today, Brown offers all team members time during their work hours to sit down with a United Way navigator, one-on-one, and apply for health care coverage. Brown also covers a stipend for Wild Scoops leadership staff who qualify for lesser tax credits, too.
“Every business is different, (and the navigators) have the expertise and the impartial stance to help figure out what kind of plan would be right for you and your team,” Brown said.
Affordable healthcare: ‘It’s a life-changer’
In Anchorage, United Way navigator offices are based out of Providence Alaska Medical Center, making patient referrals easy.
“We’re so fortunate to have that partnership,” said Jane Kober, financial counselor at Providence. “My goal is to get everyone covered.”
At the hospital, “a significant amount of our population is uninsured,” Kober said, so the coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act is invaluable to the health and well-being of Alaska families and communities.
“For folks that have an acute or chronic illness, it is a life-changer,” Kober said.
With medical debt a leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S., worrying about medical bills “can wipe people out,” Kober said, and prevent people from seeking care.
The services United Way’s healthcare navigators provide offer people a huge sense of relief, she said — and save lives.
“If you and your family don’t have insurance coverage, call us,” Straight said. “There’s usually an affordable option of some type, and it doesn’t cost anything to find out.”
This story was sponsored by United Way of Anchorage thanks to a grant from ConocoPhillips Alaska. United Way of Anchorage serves the community as a convener, funder, sustainable changemaker, and as a service provider. If you’d like to join hands with United Way in this work and learn how you can contribute, please visit LiveUnitedAnc.Org.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with United Way of Anchorage. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.