Since September, insurance agent Sherry Davis Johnson’s phone has been ringing off the hook.
Johnson, who’s based in Pasadena, helps clients enroll in the state’s health insurance marketplace, Covered California. She’s used to getting a lot of calls from people interested in finding a subsidized health plan during the annual enrollment period. But this year, demand is at an all-time high, she said.
“It’s pretty ridiculous. Since I’m working alone, it takes a lot to get the applications done,” she said. “We had a four-year unprecedented rush for open enrollment this year. I would say I am busier this year than the first year that we launched in 2013.”
Across California, more people than ever are signing up for health insurance through the state-run marketplace. As of Jan. 21, more than 340,000 new consumers had enrolled in a plan, Covered California announced Monday. That’s about 20,000 more people than had signed up by the same date last year. Additionally, about 1.2 million Californians have renewed existing plans through the exchange for 2018, the agency said. Final figures will be published after the open enrollment period ends on Jan 31, said Covered California spokesperson Larry Hicks.
The enrollment surge comes at a time of increased uncertainty over the future of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era healthcare law that ushered in the exchanges and health plan subsidies for those who qualify. At the federal level, enrollment in HealthCare.gov dipped this year after the Trump administration slashed the enrollment period by half and almost obliterated the site’s advertising budget. HealthCare.gov is the marketplace people use to sign up for health plans in 39 states that don’t operate their own exchanges.
More recently, the passage of the GOP tax bill eliminated the individual mandate penalty, a hallmark of the Affordable Care Act that requires people to pay more on their taxes if they don’t buy health insurance. That change takes effect in 2019.
“Because of the political moves that have been made in Washington, the people who thought they had all the time in the world to get enrolled whenever they needed to get enrolled are now in a bit of a panic,” said Johnson. “They think that, if things change and I’m not eligible, they’re going to dismantle what’s in place or remove the (mandated coverage of) preexisting conditions. Those have all been motivating factors.”
California’s dedication to getting the word out about the exchange, along with the state’s decision to keep enrollment open until Jan. 31 has also contributed to the upsurge, Hicks said. Covered California expects to pour over $100 million into marketing the exchange this year, reaching out to consumers through television, radio, print, billboards and digital advertising, he said.
“We have been very proactive in terms of letting Californians know about their coverage options,” Hicks said. “That has resulted in virtually every California consumer knowing who we are. We have done studies where the awareness of Covered California is at 96 percent. That’s name recognition that’s similar to Coca-Cola and Nike.”
Nevertheless, state officials are concerned about possible threats on the horizon. The repeal of the individual mandate could embolden more people – especially those who are young and healthy- to go without health insurance, pushing overall prices up, according to experts. The uncertainty over the future of the Affordable Care Act could also push insurance companies to exit the marketplace, Hicks said.
A recent analysis by Covered California predicted that 2019 premiums could rise dramatically – between 16 and 30 percent across the nation – if the federal government does not take action to stabilize the health insurance market. The increase would particularly hurt consumers who do not qualify for subsidies, the report stated.
“We continue to monitor (the situation) and we are working with our partners and the insurance companies, looking forward to see how we can continue to provide, quality affordable healthcare,” Hicks said.
(For more information about Covered California go to www.CoveredCA.com or call the service center at (800) 300-1506.)