Health

New Hampshire health coverage sign-ups lag as deadline nears

By HOLLY RAMER
Posted: Dec. 7, 2018 7:00 am Updated: Dec. 7, 2018 11:53 am

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) Fewer people in New Hampshire have signed up for insurance under former President Barack Obama's health care law this year as the enrollment deadline nears.

Figures released Thursday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show that as of Dec. 1, about 15,000 people had signed up in New Hampshire, compared to more than 19,000 by the same time last year. That amounts to a 20 percent drop. Nationally, enrollment is down about 11 percent to date compared to last year.

Many Democrats blame the Trump administration for the lagging numbers, as funding for publicity and consumer outreach has been slashed. But independent experts say there may be other reasons, too. In a strong economy, people are more likely to find jobs with coverage, and Congress got rid of the requirement that most people carry health insurance or risk fines.

Nationally, average premiums are going up only by low single-digit percentages for 2019. In New Hampshire, the average premium for a benchmark plan will be 15 percent less than it was in 2018. That cost had jumped more than 75 percent from 2017 to 2018, however.

After several years of instability, the same three companies are offering plans in New Hampshire. In 2014, the first year of the Affordable Care Act, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Hampshire was the only participating insurer, and it faced criticism for its narrow provider network. The number of insurers has fluctuated since then, with five companies in 2015 and 2016, four in 2017 and three this year: Anthem, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Ambetter from New Hampshire Healthy Families. All 26 of the state's acute care hospitals are included in at least one of the insurance company's networks, and most are in all three.

While the state no longer has any federally funded "navigators" to help people sign up, community health centers and other facilities have consumer assisters on staff, and the Covering New Hampshire organization has been working with providers and advocacy groups to publicize the enrollment period. Project manager Zandra Rice Hawkins reminded consumers that insurance plans sold through the Affordable Care Act marketplace must cover 10 essential benefits, including preventive services, mental health and substance use disorder treatment.

"It is important that people read the details for any health insurance plan purchased outside the marketplace, because it does not necessarily have to cover those essential health benefits," she said.

Open enrollment ends Dec. 15.