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From left: Nathaniel Ferre, 21, Stephanie Jorgensen, 36, and Lupe Gil, 30, host a table at South Ogden Health Center to provide info and help people get signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.

Got health insurance? If not, now is the perfect time to sign up for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act. But wait another week and that opportunity will slip away.

Enrollment for such plans opened Nov. 1 and closes Dec. 15. Plans for 2019 offer more choice, surprising subsidies and, in some cases, lower premiums than last year’s options.

But Chad Westover, CEO of University of Utah Health Plans, stressed the importance of heeding the mid-December deadline.

“We all hope we’ll stay healthy, but the truth of the matter is we all have unforeseen events that may require us to utilize medical resources. And those can be very costly,” Westover said, pointing to medical costs as a major cause of bankruptcy. “We want to make sure that everyone avails themselves of the opportunity to get insurance at a very reasonable rate while they can so that if something unexpected happens, they’re able to afford it and not have a catastrophic event both medically and financially.”

U of U Health Plans is one of three insurance carriers in Utah to offer ACA plans on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace (healthcare.gov). SelectHealth, the insurance arm of Intermountain Healthcare, also offers several options, and Molina Healthcare rejoined the marketplace with a few Utah offerings after sitting out for a year.

Heidi Castaneda, small employer and individual plan sales director for SelectHealth, said that this year’s open enrollment period feels more stabilized.

“We’ve seen a little bit of a premium decrease overall in the individual market for SelectHealth, and we’ve added some benefits,” Castaneda said, touting the company’s gym membership reimbursement along with its online telemedicine feature called Intermountain Connect Care. “Those are big changes we made for 2019 that seem to be very popular with our members.”

Castaneda encouraged people to explore their Marketplace options.

“There are still subsidies available (in the form of advanced premium tax credits and cost share reductions.) Those are all still relevant,” Castaneda said. “It you don’t have a health plan, it would make 100 percent sense to go to healthcare.gov to see if you might qualify for a subsidy. A lot of folks do that didn’t realize they did. That’s really the first step.”

The nonprofit Families USA provides some relevant information online: (https://familiesusa.org/product/federal-poverty-guidelines).

“And if you got assistance last year, those advanced premium tax credits change every year based on the plans sold in the market,” Castenada added. “So it’s a really good idea to go back and see what you qualify for, so you can spend those dollars wisely.”

Molina Healthcare responded by email, describing the Marketplace business as “another opportunity for Molina Healthcare to expand on its mission to provide high quality, affordable and accessible health care to individuals through government programs. We are looking forward to once again offering Marketplace products in Utah in 2019.”

Since Obamacare took effect in 2014, the nonprofit Utah Health Policy Project launched Take Care Utah to help Utah’s uninsured population navigate the web of health insurance and subsidy options that expanded each year and then shrunk in 2017 after President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders launched concerted efforts to dismantle the law.

Those efforts included cuts in funding for marketing and paid “navigators” who are trained to assist individuals during open enrollment. And the open enrollment period shrunk from 12 to six weeks.

But Randal Serr, director of Take Care Utah, said they’ve adapted to those changes and voiced optimism about this year’s open enrollment period.

“Whether or not the (Trump) administration believes what we do is important or worthwhile, people are always going to need help with signing up for health insurance. So we’ll keep it alive however we need to,” Serr said.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released an Aug. 23, 2018 report regarding last year’s open enrollment efforts nationwide. The report noted a 5 percent drop in enrollees, from 9.2 million in 2017 to 8.7 million in 2018, and concluded that Health and Human Services should “take steps to better manage its performance.”

Individuals with access to coverage through their employer are not eligible for open enrollment under the ACA. And those who are uninsured but miss the Dec. 15 deadline might qualify for an extension if they have a life event such as a significant relocation, having a baby or getting married.

According to Castenada, such life events would provide about 60 days from their date to either select or change coverage.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 28.9 million people under the age of 65 lacked health insurance in 2017, a decrease of about 19 million since the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010.

Cathy McKitrick is a freelance journalist. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@catmck). She can also be reached at catmckit@gmail.com.

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