The number of people enrolling in Affordable Care Act health insurance plans for 2018 coverage is outpacing last year, according to a government report released Wednesday.
The report provides a snapshot of the number of plans chosen on the Health Insurance Marketplace since the start of open enrollment on Nov. 1 through the end of week four on Nov. 25. At this time last year, about 2.1 million plans had been selected through the marketplace, whereas nearly 2.8 million consumers — a more than 30 percent increase — have signed up for coverage so far this season.
This enrollment activity comes despite higher premiums, a 90 percent decrease in advertising funds, less money for navigators who provide enrollment assistance, and a heated political debate over whether or not the ACA, often called Obamacare, should still exist.
Katherlyn Geter, lead certified navigator for the Southeast Tennessee Region, has helped people sign up for ACA insurance since the law was enacted five years ago. She said she believes the numbers reflect a continued need for health insurance and are a result of local and grassroot efforts that went into promoting the program.
"People in communities, in their own personal circles, are talking and sharing their stories. I also think it has a lot to do with the partnerships that myself as a navigator and the many [other] assisters have built," she said. "Health care is such a huge topic for most people, and access to needed care and services is equally a great concern."
A spokesperson for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the region's only insurance provider offering Obamacare plans, said "it's still early," but the company expects to have about 100,000 marketplace members in 2018's enrollment period over the 75,000 members it had in 2017.
Although the numbers through week four are up, that doesn't mean ACA enrollment ultimately will surpass that of the previous year. At this same time last year, enrollment was outpacing the previous year, but in the end, 5 million fewer people signed up in 2017 than 2016.
John Hubbard, a volunteer for the Chattanooga-based ACA assistance group Enroll the Region, said there could be several reasons why early enrollment is higher, but it could be that this year's deadline was moved up to Dec. 15, shortening the enrollment period.
He said he's worried that with less time and less advertising to remind people of the deadline they will miss out on health insurance.
"I'm waiting to see if I get all the rest of the appointments filled up or not, and we'll wait and see — I hope so, so I can help more people," he said, adding that there's usually a last-minute scramble of people trying to sign up.
But as consumers forge ahead with enrollment, the ACA continues to incite political drama in the Senate Republican tax bill.
The proposed bill aims to scrap the act's "individual mandate" that requires everyone have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. From the ACA's beginning, the mandate was unpopular, but considered a necessary component of the law. Without the mandate, healthy people may opt out of buying insurance, and in insurance pools healthy people are needed to offset the costs of unhealthy people.
Studies suggest that eliminating the mandate would eliminate the incentive for some healthy people to buy insurance, and with fewer healthy people the price of insurance could go up, leaving even more people uninsured.
Proponents of the Senate bill say that eliminating the mandate could save billions of dollars to pay for tax cuts.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.
By the numbers
Individual plan selections Nov. 1-26, 2016
United States: 2,137,717
Individual plan selections Nov. 1-25, 2017
United States: 2,781,260
Source: Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website.