Obamacare sign-ups slip in Austin area; strong economy likely a factor

Obamacare sign-ups slip in Austin area; strong economy likely a factor

Area health care advocates say they are pleased with enrollment numbers.

By Bob Sechler – American-Statesman Staff

Enrollment in health insurance plans for 2018 under the Affordable Care Act slipped from 2017 in the Austin metro area but still reached about 85 percent of last year’s total, despite a sign-up period that was half as long and widespread confusion over the fate of the law.

Statewide, enrollment came in at about 92 percent of the 2017 number, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, while nationally it came in at 97 percent of last year.

Some health care advocates said the strong local economy likely played a role in the Austin area’s lower sign-up percentage for 2018 compared with the state and national performances, because more people might have had access to health insurance through private employers here. Regardless, they called the figures strong overall.

“I think insurers were surprised at how positive these enrollment numbers were,” said Kay Ghahremani, chief executive of the Texas Association of Community Health Plans. “The numbers show that people want health insurance and there is still a great need for it.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released the final 2018 enrollment figures this week for the 39 states — including Texas — that use the health insurance marketplace run by the federal government, called HealthCare.gov, as well as for the 11 states that operate their own marketplaces.

The agency provided preliminary sign-up totals in December for the 39 states using HealthCare.gov, although no county-level figures were available then, nor was the data from the 11 additional states

Proponents of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, faced significant challenges during the enrollment period for 2018 health coverage, and many feared sign ups would fall precipitously.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the law — one of the signature accomplishments of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama — and Republicans in Congress have repeatedly tried, and failed, to repeal it. Meanwhile, the Trump administration reduced the enrollment period to 45 days, from three months, for the states using HealthCare.gov, while also sharply cutting money to advertise it and to pay for assistance to help people evaluate options.

Despite those moves, national enrollment for 2018 was off by only about 3.3 percent, or 400,000 people, coming in at about 11.8 million, according to the figures released this week. Statewide, enrollment in Texas was off about 8 percent, or about 100,000 people, at 1.13 million.

In Austin-area counties — including Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, Caldwell and Burnet — combined enrollment for 2018 came in at about 93,000 people, down about 15,400 from last year, or 14 percent. Enrollment in Travis County came in at 58,557, off 14 percent from last year, while Williamson County sign-ups totaled 20,660, down about 13.5 percent.

Health care experts said it was not a surprise that the statewide number declined by a larger percentage than the national figure, saying Texas was among the states that did little to make up for the Trump administration’s reductions in advertising and assistance.

Texas “took as hands-off an approach as it could,” said Stacey Pogue, a senior policy analyst for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “We as a state didn’t prioritize trying to overcome all of the barriers, and some other states did.”

Locally, observers said the strong economy was partially responsible for the bigger regional enrollment slump than was seen statewide or nationally, as was the fact that some premium tax credits available in the Austin metro area weren’t as large as in other regions, rendering certain plans more expensive for consumers.

Overall, though, the 2018 enrollment figures were heralded by Affordable Care Act proponents, who said insurance companies likely will view the trend as a bullish signal that demand for health plans under Obamacare remains robust going forward.

“That we were able to closely maintain the numbers is a good sign for the future of the marketplace,” said Elizabeth Colvin, director of the Insure Central Texas program at Foundation Communities. “I am very happy with the numbers, given the many challenges that this enrollment period faced.”

Colvin said her organization, which focuses on the segment of consumers who need assistance enrolling or have complex medical needs, successfully helped 5,336 people sign up for 2018 health plans, exceeding last year’s total by 22 percent in half the time.

As published by the Austin- American Statesman https://www.mystatesman.com/lifestyles/health/obamacare-sign-ups-slip-austin-area-strong-economy-likely-factor/dRKbsGhUY0ucuR8SkxS1eK/

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