Affordable Care Act sign-ups continued surge in Arizona, U.S. in April

(Video by Nicole Long/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Health care coverage in Arizona under the Affordable Care Act is at its highest level in three years, as enrollment continued to climb in April during a special open enrollment period, according to the latest government data.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that 17,081 Arizonans had selected insurance plans for 2021 from Feb. 15 through April 30. They were just some of the 939,575 Americans who got coverage during that period.

The new enrollments come on top of the 154,504 Arizonans who signed up during last fall’s regular open enrollment for 2021 coverage and the 8.25 million Americans who signed up in the same period.

The special open enrollment period was announced by the Biden administration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue through Aug. 15. Despite the apparent success of the early going, however, advocates and experts say there are still challenges – particularly for those in underserved communities.

Claudia Maldonado works at Keogh Health Connection, helping people navigate through different insurance marketplaces to find the plan that best fits their needs. The process can be overwhelming, she said.

“When you see that there is the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), there’s Arizona’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (KidsCare) and the marketplace, and you’re sitting there kind of like scratching your head saying, ‘Well, which one is for me?’”

Maldonado also shined a light on the importance of not sticking to one specific health care option, stating that the Affordable Care Act extends enrollment for all marketplaces Arizona has to offer.

“It’s important for people to have options for health care, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act – it has a lot of different pieces,” she said. “So basically, for us, it’s been able to give people another option that could potentially work for them.”

The purpose of a health insurance marketplace is to make everything a “one-stop shop” for choosing different options, according to HealthCareInsider. In Arizona, many organizations that help with connecting people to health insurance have navigators who guide them through the process.

As a navigator at Keogh Health Connections – which also provides nutrition assistance and financial support in times of personal struggle – Livby Pearson works directly with individuals looking for health insurance, especially as the enrollment period closes.

“And to have another open enrollment, right now, it’s also important because of those clients that didn’t get the opportunity or because of all the uncertainties with COVID, they didn’t get to sign up,” Pearson said. “This gives them another opportunity to do so, view their options, and get enrolled, and get the health care that they need.”

Census data showed that nationally, Hispanics had the lowest rate of health insurance coverage in the nation, with the number of uninsured Latinos rising from 16.2% in 2017 to 17.8% in 2018, more than twice the national average of 7.9% and 8.5% for those years.

Cynthia Aragon is the executive assistant at Helping Families in Need, an organization that works with people who might not have access to the resources.

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“They are facing a lot of barriers, addressing even more barriers and how can we help change those barriers or move them… be there for the community,” Aragon said.

Keogh Health Connection and Helping Families in Need have had to move away from direct community outreach to a virtual setting, due to the pandemic, but are still working with those who now qualify for Affordable Care Act benefits.

The number of people who have been able to get coverage in this special enrollment period has been two to three times as high as it was during the same time in previous years, when enrollment was limited to those losing job-based policies or experiencing other major life events, such as a birth or divorce.

According to data from CMS, enrollment from Feb. 15 to April 30 nationally stood at 391,000 people last year and 266,000 in 2019, compared to the almost 940,000 this year. In Arizona, the numbers went from 6,046 in 2019 to 7,725 in 2020 to this year’s 17,081.

After several years of steady premiums, the five firms offering insurance coverage under the ACA marketplace offered plans for 2021 that ranged from a 7% decrease in premiums to a 9% increase, according to HealthInsurance.org. But the government says that additional aid approved in the American Rescue Plan in March should help lower many consumers’ monthly premiums.

The special COVID-19 related open enrollment for Arizona health insurance marketplaces will close on Aug. 15 but will reopen in November for 2022 coverage, and will follow pre-pandemic qualifications.

Nicole Long Ni-cole Long
News Reporter, Phoenix

Nicole Long expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. She is a broadcast reporter at Cronkite News this spring.

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