Colorado extends enrollment deadline amid uncertainty over future of health care
February 1, 2017
Connect for Health Colorado, the state's Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange, has extended its open enrollment deadline from midnight on Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 at 6 p.m. Exchanges in other states, including Minnesota and California, made similar moves, citing heavy website and phone line traffic on the eve of the original deadline.
The extended deadline is intended for people who began the enrollment process this week but were unable to finish due to high volumes of people flooding the exchanges' website and phone banks.
It's not uncommon for activity on exchanges to jump right before deadlines, but local enrollees and a Connect for Health spokesman said uncertainty over the future of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, likely heightened the number of people trying to sign up before the last enrollment period of the year.
"Based on our conversations, it definitely has to do with the uncertainty. I think that's very hard for people right now, especially people who want to be able to see a doctor and who have pre-existing conditions," said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family and Intercultural Resource Center, an organization that has hosted several walk-in sessions to help people navigate the enrollment process.
Those who don't enroll by the new deadline would have to pay a federal fine of at least $695 or 2.5 percent of their gross annual income, although people who experience a "life-change" event — like losing their job or having a child — would be eligible to enroll after the deadline.
President Donald Trump and leading Republicans have said they intend to follow through on their promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, which they say has caused soaring premiums and imposed burdensome regulations on employers, among other things.
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The "individual mandate," which imposes fines on people who don't get coverage, is likely headed for the chopping block, along with premium subsidies and mandated contraception coverage.
It's unclear, however, whether or not some popular aspects of the law might survive, like the requirement that insurance companies provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. And while potential replacements have been put forward, no final plan has crystalized yet.
"Lots of people are really concerned, especially folks with kids and health issues," said Danielle McQueen, health coverage team manager for FIRC. "The only thing we can say now is nothing has changed yet with the ACA, and you will still owe a penalty if you don't enroll. That's all we know."
Since Nov. 1 last year, FIRC has helped 520 Summit County residents enroll in plans with Connect for Health and Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program.
Of those who got coverage through Connect for Health with FIRC's assistance, 260 were eligible for federal subsidies and paid an average monthly premium of $132 after tax credits.
Statewide, Connect for Health had its third consecutive year of enrollment growth. On Monday, total plan selections surpassed 170,000, a 12-percent increase over the same period last year. It's not clear how much of that total came in during the final days of open enrollment.
"With the volume that was coming, we saw the risk that some people might begin the process and not be able to complete it by midnight," said Luke Clarke, a Connect for Health spokesman. "Certainly the conversation about health care reform raises awareness and that drives some enrollment, but we're a young organization so we're seeing good growth."
People who enroll in plans by the final deadline will have coverage for a full year, and there is little the federal government could do that might affect those. The future of the state exchange itself, though, is a bit more uncertain.
Congressional Republicans have talked of eliminating state exchanges altogether, and a bill pending in the Colorado State Legislature would do just that. Under that plan, which is opposed by Democrats, the exchange would be repealed on Jan. 1, 2018.
Were that to happen, Clarke said, Connect for Health could still function as a marketplace where people compare and shop for plans in one place. Roughly 37 percent people who use the exchange's website don't qualify for federal subsidies, Clarke said.
"We're looking at all the proposals coming up and trying to keep an open mind and remember that we're also a place where people can shop and compare," he said. "Maybe post-ACA, or whatever that new world is going to be called, our future could be the shopping site. People need health insurance, and it's easier to go to one location."