Arizona Obamacare premiums may drop, as troubled enrollment opens

Open enrollment for the next year of the Affordable Care Act opened Wednesday, and Arizona is one of a few states that could see average premiums drop – if consumers can figure out how to sign up for policies. Critics say White House changes could hobble open enrollment. (Photo by Alex Proimos/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Arizona is one of the few states expected to see a decrease in average premium costs during the Affordable Care Act open enrollment period that opened Wednesday – if consumers can figure out how to sign up.

The window to enroll has been cut in half from previous years, to 45 days, hours have been shortened, outreach and advertising budgets have been cut, in what critics are calling a Trump administration campaign to “sabotage” Obamacare after Congress was unable to kill it.

President Donald Trump indicated his opinion during a Cabinet meeting last month, saying, “Obamacare is finished, it’s dead, it’s gone.”

But supporters of the health care program say it’s still very much alive and are encouraging people to be more aware of the enrollment process.

“People need to actively enroll,” said Allen Gjersvig, director of navigator and enrollment services at Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers. If they don’t, they could get stuck with a plan they don’t like or face tax penalties next year, he said.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding this year’s open season – which experts say could lead to declines in enrollment for a second straight year nationally – there is potential good news for Arizona, which is one of three states that is expected to see a drop in average premium costs next year.

An analysis by Avalere predicts that the average premium cost for a “silver” plan in Arizona will fall by 6 percent in 2018, after getting pummeled with a 116 percent average increase in premiums last year. That number was frequently cited by Trump as proof of the failings of Obamacare.

Gjersvig said 2017 was a “correction year” for the state, which had some of the lowest costs in the country previously.

While Arizona’s costs have leveled off, the Kaiser Family Foundation said other states will see premium increases ranging from 7 percent to 38 percent next year. Kaiser blamed the increases in part on actions by the Trump administration to rein in the Affordable Care Act.

Among those changes is a 45-day enrollment period, down from 90 days in the first four years of the program, and a 12-hour blackout every Sunday from midnight to noon when the online enrollment system will be taken down for maintenance. The administration has also cut funding for marketing and for program navigators, the assistants who helped people work through the enrollment process and who have been called “critical” to getting many people signed up.

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Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said the cuts were not made for any budgetary reasons but as part of a “systematic, orchestrated and deliberate” plan to hobble the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress have not been able to kill.

Grijalva called the cuts “sabotage.”

“People don’t know about that short window” to enroll, Grijalva said, citing the Dec. 15 cutoff compared to last year’s Jan. 31 deadline to enroll.

In addition to changes directly affecting enrollment, the White House last month said it was ending subsidies to insurance companies that help them offer lower premium rates to low-income patients – low rates that are required by law. But eliminating the Cost Sharing Reduction payment, advocates worry that the cost for low-income plans will just be passed on to other customers.

Trump said he eliminated those cost-sharing payments to “cut off the gravy train” to insurance companies. He said the Affordable Care Act’s time has come and gone.

“It’s a concept that couldn’t have worked,” Trump said during an October Cabinet meeting. “Obamacare is finished, it’s dead, it’s gone.”

But the law remains for at least another year, and part of that law penalizes anyone who does not have health insurance. Gjersvig said those who do not enroll will face a fee of $695 or 2.5 percent of their income, whichever is greater, when they pay their taxes next year.

“Read your mail,” he warned.

While open enrollment began Wednesday, “window shopping” began a week earlier on the website. People who window-shop can compare plans and available coverage in their area by entering their age, expected income and ZIP code. That program can also provide an estimate of the tax credit available to people earning four times the federal poverty level or less, credits that help them afford insurance.

“More than 87 percent of Arizonans qualify for some form of financial assistance,” Gjersvig said during an AACHC news conference Wednesday. Some low-income people will qualify for a “bronze” plan that is essentially free because “their tax credit will be greater than or equal to the amount of a premium” they have to pay for it, he said.