ACA enrollment: Better rates for Alaskans but less time to find them

While the feds have slashed advertising for the ACA enrollment period, the state a has a print-it-yourself option to get the word out. Image:

President Trump is fond of saying “Obamacare is dead.” That negative advertising from the White House is just one of the obstacles Alaska’s health care navigators are trying to overcome ahead of the Affordable Care Act enrollment period that starts Nov. 1. But for Alaskans who buy their own health insurance on the individual market, there’s also good news.

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Jessie Menkens is a health care navigator and coordinates the program for the Alaska Primary Care Association, one of the non-profits that get federal money to help people sign up for insurance through the federal marketplace. Premera, the sole marketplace insurer in Alaska, has announced a rate decrease for next year, and Menkens said that’s especially good for Alaskans who earn too much to qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

“For the very first time the cost of plans is going down significantly,” Menkens said. “This is new information to a lot of folks when we start talking with them about their opportunities.”

For those who do qualify for financial help, Menkens said the discounts will be applied, same as before, even if the government doesn’t reimburse Premera.

“Nothing is really going to change how open enrollment operates this year there will be subsidies available to Alaskans to reduce the cost of their insurance and their out-of-pocket expenditures,” Menkens said.

But some things have changed, and they’re a challenge to those trying to lower the number of Alaskans who don’t have insurance. For one, the Trump administration has shortened the enrollment period. It was three months. Now it’s six weeks.

“We finally have an opportunity to perhaps add some stability to our market place. But in order for us to be successful with that we need to be able to get the word out and share this information with Alaskans,” Menkens said.

And now they have less money to get that word out. The federal government suddenly cut funding for her program by 25 percent. Alaska navigators have had to scale back their marketing campaigns. The federal government used to help with its own advertising of enrollment periods, but the new administration slashed that budget by 90 percent.

Menkens said the navigators who work for Alaska Primary Care Association have had to cut their hours, though they aim to remain on duty as much as possible during the critical enrollment period.

And there’s another challenge: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it plans to shut down the website for 12 hours nearly every weekend during the open enrollment period, for maintenance.

Sue Brogan heads the navigator program at United Way of Anchorage, which is focused on Anchorage residents. She said the website outages will be hard for Alaskans who don’t need navigator help and want to sign up on their own.

“We’re really extremely concerned and disappointed if that is the way that that will move forward,” Brogan said.

In Alaska, the outages will hit during some prime evening hours. They are scheduled for every Saturday night except Dec. 9, starting at 8 p.m. Alaska time. In addition, the government says it will have an “overnight” outage on the first night of open enrollment, Nov. 1. No time was provided.

The Health and Human Services Department said the site was down for maintenance during enrollment periods in the Obama administration, too, and for nearly as long.

The individual market enrollment period runs Nov. 1 through Dec. 15. It does not affect most Alaskans, who get their insurance through employers.

How to reach the health care navigators in Alaska: 

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz