NJ Spotlight

ACA Health Insurance Sign-Ups Pushed As Enrollment Deadline Looms

As economic benefits to NJ become apparent, local efforts intensify, especially those targeting Latino residents

NJ Spotlight — Wednesday, February 11, 2015

By Andrew Kitchenman

With three days left to sign up for individual health insurance through the federally operated marketplace, healthcare analysts are watching closely to see if there is an enrollment surge similar to last year.

The pace has picked up recently with an additional 11,852 New Jersey residents choosing health plans between January 31 and February 6. That is equal to more than a quarter of the new enrollments over the previous 11 weeks and brought the total to 222,640 state residents with marketplace plans, according to a new federal report.

The second open-enrollment period for the marketplace closes on Sunday, three months after it began on November 15. It was a much tighter timeframe than the first open enrollment, which lasted more than six months and ended with a flurry of activity, with 87,000 residents enrolling in the last seven weeks.

As the enrollment push continues, a report issued yesterday estimated that the state has received $2.9 billion in economic benefits from Affordable Care Act insurance enrollment. New Jersey Policy Perspective senior policy analyst Raymond J. Castro calculated that up to $2.3 billion and 26,000 jobs would be created if everyone eligible for either Medicaid or marketplace insurance enrolled by 2016.

Advocates for expanding healthcare access said the report could encourage mayors and other local officials to more aggressively push for increased enrollment.

The number of insurance-enrollment events has increased in recent weeks, including some sponsored by state legislators. A group of Democratic legislators announced last week that they would be urging constituents to enroll through in-person events, mailers and phone calls.

A particular focus of the late push is Hispanic residents, who comprised only 7 percent of those who signed up in the first open-enrollment period.

That percentage rose to 10 percent of those who had signed up through Jan. 31.

"I think in the first enrollment year, everyone was a little hesitant to enroll — they didn't know how to do it or where to do it," said Yaritza Lopez, New Jersey community health engagement coordinator for the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, a faith-based group.

Lopez said support from church groups has been essential to spreading a positive message about ACA insurance, which has pushed up both marketplace and Medicaid enrollment.

"The response has really been phenomenal," in the second open-enrollment period in comparison with the first period, she said.

The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, the coalition president and a Newark resident, said the enrollment campaign has combined work through local church groups with media advertising through Spanish-language outlets like Paterson-based Radio Vision Cristiana, WWRV-1330 AM.

The marketplace — www.healthcare.gov — allows individuals and families to buy insurance, with federal income tax credits subsidizing the cost for those with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of 2014 federal poverty guidelines, which ranges from $23,850 for one person to $95,400 for a family of four.

All insurance plans have a specific open-enrollment period. If people could enroll throughout the year, they might wait until they got sick to enroll. However, those whose insurance status — such as loss of job, marriage, etc. — changes outside of the open-enrollment period can still buy insurance through the marketplace.

Federal officials have proposedan even tighter open enrollment period next year, from October 1 to December 15.

Once this open enrollment period closes, there will still be a large pool of uninsured New Jerseyans.

Castro estimates that nearly 500,000 residents could still buy marketplace plans and another 122,000 could enroll in Medicaid. He noted that the remaining economic benefits of the ACA would be greatest in areas with the densest concentration of uninsured residents.

Castro said New Jersey is doing better than most other states in the amount of federal marketplace tax credits and Medicaid spending it's bringing in new enrollment. That's due to higher costs of insurance plans in the state, which means residents are getting more tax credits, and the state's above-average enrollment in Medicaid.

The $2.9 billion that the state is already gaining in annual direct federal spending doesn't include the indirect benefits of having a healthier workforce, reduced charity care costs, and savings to the state budget, since the federal government is paying a higher share of costs for some state residents who were already enrolled in Medicaid.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), while focusing primarily on the potential public health benefits in explaining his support for the ACA, also suggested that hospitals and healthcare providers would be able to stay in business and add jobs as a result of the additional patients they are acquiring thanks to the ACA.

He was one of 11 Democratic lawmakers who pledged their offices' resources to helping with the last-minute push in conjunction with national nonprofit Enroll America.

Castro noted that the state government under Gov. Chris Christie has refused to fund marketplace outreach - Christie vetoed two bills that would have established a state-based insurance exchange and allowed the state to tap into millions of federal dollars for outreach.

But Castro said increased awareness of the economic benefits of ACA enrollment could encourage local elected officials to work harder to get more people to sign up.

New Jersey Citizen Action healthcare program director Maura Collinsgru said the remaining uninsured New Jersey residents — including Latinos — will be harder to reach than those who are already enrolled. That's why local officials who know their communities can play a crucial role, she said.

"We are seeing more robust enrollment," in cities like Jersey City, Newark and Paterson where elected officials are engaged in ACA outreach, Collinsgru said.

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