Health

The last day to sign-up for health insurance on Healthcare.gov is December 15, and the latest available data show fewer Kentuckians have purchased plans so far this year compared to the same time last year.

During open enrollment this time last year, 27,979 Kentuckians had signed up for coverage, compared to 22,565 people so far this year. Ben Sommers, a health economist at Harvard, said it’s too early to draw conclusions about the lag.

“So with a lot of things in flux, you don’t know how exactly that’s going to play out,” Sommers said. “Are consumers going to be more likely to just not enroll at all, or are some going to wait until the last minute to do so?”

But Sommers and other advocates worry that people who need comprehensive health coverage won’t get it this year. 

Advocates’ fears are based on a number of factors, including the elimination of the individual mandate. Consumers will no longer be penalized on their taxes for not having health insurance in 2019. And short-term health plans, which typically have lasted for three months, can now be used to cover people for up to a year. The short-term plans are usually a cheaper option than Healthcare.gov plans for people who don’t receive federal support to help them pay for coverage.

A report by the federal government earlier this year estimated there were fewer than 200,000 people with short-term plans last year, but that’s expected to increase by more than 600,000 by 2019.

According to a tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation released this week, about one in five people said they would consider shifting to a short-term plan. 

In addition to the lag in overall enrollments, there aren’t as many new consumers nationwide signing up for health coverage. Last year at this time, there were 718,285 new consumers buying plans. So far this year, 588,131 people have purchased coverage for the first time on the exchange.

While repeat customers at Healthcare.gov receive reminders about enrolling, people who’ve never bought a plan on the site do not. That’s where marketing and assistance funding can be crucial to educate consumers, said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“The individual market, it constantly churns. Some people get their coverage there all the time, like self-employed people. But most of us who need to buy coverage on our own only need to do that at certain points in our lives, when we’re between jobs, when we first are off our parents policy,” Pollitz said.

“It’s really important for people to be continuously covered, to know that this is an option that this is the market that will sell you coverage, no matter whether you’re sick and have a pre-existing condition or not.”

Thirty-four states that use Healthcare.gov had marketing and enrollment assistance budgets cut by about 85 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But that wasn’t the case in Kentucky. The state maintained about the same level of funding as previous years for enrollment assisters and outreach, said Emily Beauregard, executive director at advocacy group Kentucky Voices for Health.

The state of Kentucky still contracts for application assisters and has assisters who are working in communities across the state to provide in-person assistance, which is really the best way for someone to enroll in coverage because it’s such a confusing and complicated process that you really need that one-on-one help,” said Beauregard.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.