Despite multiple attempts to kill it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, lives on.
It has, however, been amputated. Funding for the landmark health insurance legislation has been reduced, with further cuts planned as the Trump administration actively works to undermine the system put in place during the previous president’s term.
Yet, even as some providers are making double-digit rate increases to some plans offered through the ACA, many enrollees may now qualify for better plans at the same price – or even lower.
It’s understandable if Montanans are confused about just what has changed and how those changes might affect them. Unfortunately, thanks to federal cuts in ACA sign-up programs, they will have less help making sense of the enrollment process and choosing the plan that works best for them.
Funding for both public advertising campaigns and the network of helpers called “navigators” has been reduced by tens of millions, even as the enrollment period has been significantly shortened; it began on Nov. 1 and will end on Dec. 15 this year.
What is means is that the nearly 64,000 Montanans enrolled in Obamacare at last count, as well as anyone else interested in signing up for ACA coverage, should begin exploring their options for 2018 plans right now. Don’t wait until the last week, when the federal website is notoriously slow due to high use and local navigators could be too busy to schedule new appointments.
The place to start is the main healthcare.gov website, where individuals and employers can learn about the different plans available and sign up for the one that suits them best.
In Montana, the Office of the State Auditor and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance also launched montanahealthanswers.com to provide information specific to Montanans – including a comprehensive list of local navigators.
Covermt.org, offered by the Montana Primary Care Association, is also a good online resource for free assistance.
Those without internet access can ask for help at pretty much any local health clinic or hospital. And anyone who needs in-person help understanding the system, terms or choices can make an appointment with a local navigator, Certified Application Counselor or Certified Exchange Producer. All navigators are required to pass background checks, receive training specific to Montana and pass a test demonstrating their proficiency.
These helpers provide assistance to anyone who needs it at no cost, and the state website lists 368 of them (although not all of them are based in Montana); 28 are available in Missoula alone.
The ACA helps fill a serious gap in health insurance, especially in rural states like Montana, by providing subsidies to qualifying enrollees who earn between 138 and 250 percent of the federal poverty income level. Before the ACA was enacted, 20 percent of Montanans had no health insurance. Within three years, that percentage had dropped to less than 8 percent.
All Montanans have an interest in driving the number of uninsured as low as possible. It keeps health care costs down and saves everyone money – not to mention unnecessary pain and suffering – in the long run.