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<p>This week, federal officials released the first state-by-state data about enrollment in the health insurance exchange.
By Rose Hoban
Almost a quarter-million people in North Carolina have selected plans through the health insurance exchange in the first month of open enrollment, Nov. 15 through Dec. 15, according to a federal report released Tuesday.
Of the 249,784 North Carolinians picking plans for 2015, about 44 percent, or some 109,000 people, were signing up for the first time. The rest had received coverage for 2014, which was the first year the Affordable Care Act was in effect, and are returning to the exchange to update their enrollment for this year.
North Carolina’s total is the third-highest among the 37 states that have an exchange run by the federal government. Only Florida and Texas – states with much higher populations than the Tar Heel State – have enrolled more people.
The report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is the first detailed look at state-by-state enrollment in the 2015 exchange.
“I think we are on track,” said Sorien Schmidt, state head of Enroll America, a not-for-profit organization that’s coordinating sign-ups for the exchanges in eight states. “It’s great that many people have checked out the marketplace for their options in 2015.”
The enrollment figures as of Dec. 15 do not reflect the still undetermined number of North Carolinians who were automatically re-enrolled in the same health plans they currently have. People who signed up by Dec. 15 were able to have their 2015 coverage take effect on New Year’s Day.
“We can’t really tell about re-enrollments, because the auto re-enrollments are not included in this,” Schmidt said. “It’s too soon to know what that means.”
North Carolina’s total number of enrollees during the first open enrollment was 357,584.
As of Dec. 15, more than 4 million people signed up for the first time or re-enrolled in coverage for 2015. That includes more than 3.4 million people who selected a plan in the 37 states using the federal healthcare.gov exchange and more than 600,000 consumers who selected plans in the states that are operating their own exchanges.
However, Charles Gaba, a blogger based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. who accurately forecast 2014 enrollment, calculates that the number of sign-ups stands closer to 7.3 million as of Dec. 27. Gaba predicts that about 12.5 million Americans will enroll in exchange coverage in 2015.
U.S. Health and Human Services Sec. Sylvia Burwell said in a statement Tuesday that “interest in the marketplace has been strong during the first month of open enrollment. We still have a ways to go and a lot of work to do before February 15, but this is an encouraging start.”
Almost 92 percent of North Carolinians picking a health plan were eligible for a subsidy that would lower their monthly premiums.
“I think, again, we’re seeing that a lot of people qualify for financial assistance and are going through the complete application to select a plan,” Schmidt said.
“What we’re concentrating on is reaching more of the people who have not enrolled and letting them know they have only until Feb. 15. That’s less than two months, and that’s not a long time.”
Schmidt also noted that enrollment is likely to surge as the Feb. 15 deadline approaches, as it did during the 2014 enrollment period that ended this past March.
“It’s easy to look at numbers and forget these are real people that we’re talking to, and they call us back and tell us about how getting this insurance is life changing and life saving for them,” Schmidt said. “They know they have health problems they haven’t been able to treat.”
In addition, 20,079 people in North Carolina were determined to be already eligible for Medicaid coverage.
Schmidt noted that North Carolina’s rate of uninsurance is estimated to have dropped by 3.7 percent last year, according to polling data. In 2012, the rate of uninsurance was calculated at just over 20 percent.
Better numbers will eventually come from the U.S. Census, but Schmidt said those data have a longer lag time.
This year, North Carolina has three insurers offering plans on the exchange. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Coventry Care offered plans last year. This year, they were joined by UnitedHealthcare, the third-largest insurance provider in North Carolina, which already had robust networks throughout the state.
Many people who remain without health insurance in 2015 will be subject to increased penalties for not obtaining coverage, which may become an incentive for more sign-ups this year, according to experts.
Current exchange customers who have been automatically re-enrolled can still make plan changes through Feb. 15.
“Many of them can do better if they shop around’’ on the exchange and not just stick with the old plan, Schmidt said.