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Dec. 15 is season’s first deadline for getting health insurance

Last modified: 12/11/2015 12:40:01 AM
Those who want a new health plan under the Health Insurance Marketplace must choose one by Tuesday if they want the coverage to start Jan. 1.

The deadline is the first of several as part of the annual sign-ups for Obamacare, and this year there’s more incentive to participate because penalties for not having insurance continue to rise.

Penalties in 2016 will be as much as $695 per person or about $969 per family, collected as part of federal taxes. It’s the first time that penalties are large enough that they exceed the cost of policies for some people, after income-based subsidies are applied.

Those with existing health plans don’t have to do anything, because they’ll automatically be re-enrolled, but some effort may pay off. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that shopping for health care during the open enrollment period makes people “very likely” to save money.

“We’re encouraging people to look at plans. Studies show you have a 70 percent chance of lowering monthly cost if look at new plans,” said Jayme Simoes of Louis Karno & Co., a Concord-based firm coordinating outreach for Covering New Hampshire, the informational program about the health insurance law. “With a subsidy it can be as little as $25, $30, $40 a month.”

Under the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, as the expanded Medicaid system is known, it can be free or virtually free for qualifying residents.

For more information about health insurance in New Hampshire, check the Covering New Hampshire website at coveringnewhampshire.org.

Among the publicity efforts to get people to consider health insurance is a recorded message from Matt Bonner, the former Concord High School basketball star who plays for the San Antonio Spurs. “To stay in the game, you have to be healthy. Accidents happen. But if you have good coverage, you don’t have to worry,” says Bonner in the video. “It’s a smart move.”

Health insurance must be obtained by Jan. 31 to avoid penalties. Those who have health insurance through other outlets, such as their employer, do not have to take any action through the federal Health Insurance Marketplace. Those who move into New Hampshire can sign up at any time.

As of Dec. 5, 13,458 New Hampshire residents have signed up via the marketplace. It’s unclear how many are charging policies and how many had no previous health insurance.

This health insurance program remains much debated – both houses of Congress recently passed a law to repeal Obamacare, although the president is certain to veto it and the veto will probably not be overridden. Opponents cite a number of issues, such as a tax on medical devices and other taxes and the amount of paperwork forced on businesses, and point to cost issues. Notably, UnitedHealth Care, the nation’s largest health insurer, has said it may drop out of the program because costs are too high and not enough healthy people are enrolling, while other studies have said that deductibles are rising fast under Obamacare, undoing some of the benefit of relatively low monthly payments.

Supporters point to signs of success, including a decline in the number of people without health insurance.

“Census numbers put it around 100,000, our own research is around 90,000,” said Simoes of the number of people without health insurance. That is a decline of roughly one-third since Obamacare launched in 2013.

Another sign cited by supports is a decline in the number of uninsured patents going to the hospital. Picking up the tab for such people has been cited as a major driver on rising health care costs.

According to the New Hampshire Hospital Association, as of June 2015 emergency department visits among the uninsured are down 28 percent since the expanded Medicaid program was created in August 2014, while inpatient visits among the uninsured are down 36 percent and outpatient visits among the uninsured are down 23 percent.

One question that remains is why more people haven’t gotten health insurance.

“That’s a question that’s hard to answer,” said Simoes. “Compared to other states in the country, actually pretty good number. . . . It’s partly that there are still people who think they don’t need it. They are used to not having it, for many years they didn’t.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter 


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