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  1. Health

Obamacare open enrollment gets off to a smooth start, but navigators still face challenges

Doug Calwhite, 62, of Tampa works with Xonjenese Jacobs to get health insurance Monday at USF in Tampa.
Doug Calwhite, 62, of Tampa works with Xonjenese Jacobs to get health insurance Monday at USF in Tampa.
Published Nov. 3, 2015

TAMPA — It took Doug Calwhite about 30 minutes Monday to enroll in a new health insurance plan on the Obamacare marketplace.

The 62-year-old retired maintenance mechanic stopped into the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center for in-person assistance from enrollment experts known as navigators. One quickly helped him trade his midrange silver plan for a more economical bronze plan.

"If people knew how simple it was," he said before leaving, "they would all be here."

Other consumers were equally as satisfied.

"It wasn't bad at all," said Petal Pennycooke, 55, a full-time psychology student who enrolled in coverage for herself and her teenage daughter during a break between classes.

The orderly, efficient scene at USF — on the second day of the annual open enrollment period — was a far cry from the inaugural open enrollment in 2013, when computer glitches kept thousands of consumers from purchasing plans.

This time, there were no technical problems. College students and members of the public streamed in for meetings with navigators well into the afternoon. Most left with coverage.

"The system is running nicely," said Xonjenese Jacobs, a navigator who helped with the kickoff event at USF. "We were able to get someone enrolled within 15 minutes."

Still, the navigators face a herculean task over the next three months. In addition to helping existing consumers like Calwhite shop around, they're hoping to enroll an estimated 825,000 uninsured Floridians eligible for financial assistance, but who have yet to sign up.

"We have a lot of opportunity," said Melanie Hall, of the nonprofit Family Healthcare Foundation.

Last year, more than 1.3 million Floridians signed up for individual insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. About 90 percent received tax credits to help offset the cost of coverage.

Initiatives like Florida Covering Kids & Families, a project of USF and the state's largest recipient of federal funding for navigators, played a significant role in the enrollment effort. The organization and its 11 consortium partners met with more than 200,000 consumers before the close of last year's open-enrollment period, project director Jodi Ray said.

The Florida marketplace will look a little different in 2016.

The state Office of Insurance Regulation expects premiums to rise an average of 9.5 percent for consumers across Florida. But federal health officials have said the average cost of the popular "benchmark plan" — the second lowest-cost silver plan — will drop by 2.4 percent for consumers in the Tampa Bay area.

One thing is certain to increase: the penalty for not having coverage.

Adults who choose to go without health insurance coverage will now be charged $695 or 2.5 percent of their household income — whichever amount is higher.

Efforts to boost enrollment for 2016 are under way. Some are focusing on the so-called "young invincibles" — healthy adults under age 35 who don't see the need for health insurance. Others are specific to the black and Hispanic communities.

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Community leaders are rallying behind the cause. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn attended the event at USF and pledged to put "the full weight" of his office behind open enrollment.

"This is a program that makes a difference in the lives of people in this community in very real and tangible ways," he said.

Ray said she believed the 2016 open enrollment would be successful, especially in light of its smooth start Sunday and Monday.

"I have no doubt we will once again exceed enrollment projections," she said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

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