Despite the budget cuts, the attempts to repeal and replace, and reports of sharp rises in premiums, Floridians and other Americans are signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act at record rates this year.
Enrollment has surged 47 percent over this point last year in the 39 states with federal health care exchanges, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. About 1.5 million people across the country have signed up through healthcare.gov in the first 11 days of the six-week enrollment period for 2018. That includes the 876,788 consumers who purchased insurance during the second week of the period, Nov. 5-11.
Compare that to the just over 1 million people who signed up for Obamacare during the first 12 days of enrollment last year.
In the Tampa Bay area, health care "navigators" say they are seeing more consumers than ever.
"We’ve been very, very busy," said Melanie Hall, executive director of the Family Health Care Foundation in Tampa, one of the government-funded nonprofits that helps people navigate the system and sign up for coverage on the Florida exchange, the nation’s largest ACA marketplace. "What’s great is the word is getting out and people aren’t waiting until the last minute to sign up."
Navigators at the University of South Florida have been so busy, they’ve been adding more slots than anticipated for scheduled appointments this week, said Jodi Ray, the director of USF’s navigator program, Florida Covering Kids & Families.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," she said. "I think people are nervous about losing their coverage."
During the first four days of enrollment, Ray’s program saw a 50 percent spike in traffic compared to last year, she said.
And most people seem to be finding more affordable rates than they anticipated.
"I think people are seeing lower premiums in some cases because of the tax credits," Hall said, referring to a signature Obamacare feature that protects people with lower incomes from high insurance rates.
The plans fall into four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Consumers who choose bronze plans pay the lowest monthly premiums, but the most for care. Those with platinum plans have the highest monthly premiums, but the lowest cost of care.
Ray echoed Hall’s assessment, adding: "Premiums jumped up this year, but what we’re finding is that when we look at some of the plans side-by-side, even the gold plans, the premium costs actually went down. It depends on if you get the tax credits of course, but some people are finding better deals going up from a silver plan to a gold one to get that credit."
Not everyone is getting a great deal. Consumers with too much income to qualify for subsidies are bearing the brunt of premium hikes, a fact that many lawmakers are focusing on as they try to kill the law.
Those complaints, along with cuts to Obamacare’s marketing budgets and the shorter sign-up window had navigators worried that fewer people would be shopping on the exchanges during this enrollment cycle.
"It’s hard to know if we’re enrolling more people or if more people are enrolling early, since we have half the time to reach them," Ray said. "But people are being responsive and that’s making me happy."
Brittany Bianchi, a 28-year-old graduate student studying to be a physician’s assistant at USF in Tampa, signed up for health insurance at a navigator event on campus this week. Bianchi is from California and is only in Florida for school, which made finding the right plan a little tricky.
"If I was back at home in California, I qualified for Medicaid because I’m a student and have no income," she said. "I was afraid if I tried to figure this out by myself it would have taken like, 4-5 hours, so I came here."
The uptick in overall enrollment was due mostly to consumers returning to the marketplace, as the number of new consumers is slightly down this year, according to the CMS report.
One of those newcomers is Spoorthy Prabhudeva, a graduate student in USF’s college of medicine, who will no longer be on her parents’ plan and was signing up for health insurance for the first time this month.
"A lot of what I’ve heard so far about the ACA has been exaggerated, like how high the premiums are," Prabhudeva said.
Bunni Lefebvre and her husband, Scott, in Tarpon Springs also signed up for the first time this week.
Both retired from their careers in IT earlier in the year when they were 50.
"We both had good jobs. We looked at our life and decided that we could live on what we’d saved so far, so we did it," Bunni Lefebvre said.
The couple married in 2016 and has no kids. They said not having the expense of children puts them a world apart from most other adults looking for insurance at their age.
"We don’t have to pay for a college education or a wedding," Lefebvre said. "We don’t have any family that we have to support or leave our house to. We budgeted and decided we could afford $1,000 a month for health insurance."
The couple decided on a bronze plan because they wanted only basic coverage.
"All we care about is coverage for the major stuff. We’re not sickly people. We don’t have major issues. But if one of us gets hit by a bus, we don’t want to have a $700,000 bill," Bunni Lefebvre said.
After talking about their options with a broker, they said they were surprised at how easy it was to sign up on healthcare.gov — and how low their cost would be compared to what they had budgeted.
The plan they selected came with a premium of $70 a month for both of them, with a $7,000 deductible.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.