Another 425,000 Sign Up For Covered California

California Healthline, by Barbara Feder Ostrov, 02/04/2016

More than 425,000 Californians have signed up on the state’s health insurance exchange — with nearly 100,000 rushing to enroll in the last four days before the 2016 open enrollment period ended Jan. 31, officials said Thursday.

The exchange, Covered California, had estimated it would attract between 295,000 and 450,000 new enrollees during its third open enrollment season since the Affordable Care Act took effect. In addition to the new enrollees, about 1.15 million existing consumers re-upped this year, officials said, for a total of about 1.57 million.

Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said about 37 percent of the new enrollees are young adults aged 18-34, up from 34 percent from last year. That’s good news for exchange officials, because younger, healthier adults help subsidize coverage for older Californians.

“We continue to have a broad and healthy mix of those signing up for coverage … which means better rates and a more stable system, both for all of our enrollees, and for the entire individual health insurance marketplace in California,” Lee said.

Lee declined to provide additional information on the ethnic and demographic breakdown of enrollees or the plans they chose, saying the numbers were still being analyzed.

The number of enrollees could still grow a bit this year, because the state last week extended the enrollment deadline for people who had officially begun the process by Jan. 31. Lee said “tens of thousands” of Californians are in that group.

With the end of open enrollment for 2016, consumers in California and nationwide can sign up for Affordable Care Act insurance only if they encounter a life-altering event such as having a baby, getting married or losing employer-based insurance. The next open enrollment period, for coverage in 2017, will start in November.

Most people who fail to sign up by the deadline face tax penalties of $695 per adult, plus $347.50 per child, up to a maximum of $2,085 for a family, or 2.5 percent of family income in excess of 2015 income tax filing thresholds. Since Covered California launched, the exchange has served more than 2 million people, Lee said. Of the consumers who have left the exchange, about 85 percent found other insurance options, including through their jobs, he said.

Still, California’s health insurance exchange has struggled to reach the state’s remaining uninsured, particularly Latinos and African-Americans.

About 2.4 percent of the exchange’s approximately 1.3 million enrollees are African-American. That’s only about half of the blacks considered eligible for subsidies because of their income. Another 30 percent are Latino, although 37 percent are considered eligible for subsidies, according to Covered California data.

When the 2016 open enrollment period started in November, the exchangepromised deeper outreach in those communities, including more targeted advertising, events and storefront enrollment centers.

Concerns also remain about Covered California’s ability to rein in insurance costs, especially for consumers who make too much money to qualify for subsidies or Medi-Cal but not enough to afford full-fare premiums. Lee said that Covered California consumers saw an average 4 percent rate increase in 2016, slightly lower than in 2015. Nationally, however, the increase was higher: Obamacare premiums for “benchmark” insurance plans were expected to rise by an average of 7.5 percent, according to federal data.

But because consumers can change plans during open enrollment, those who switched to the lowest-cost plan in their area could lower their premiums by an average of 4.5 percent this year, Lee said.