By Taylor Knopf

Charlotte residents could have fewer opportunities for in-person assistance during Affordable Care Act insurance enrollment later this year after changes made by the Trump administration.

The Associated Press reported that the administration ended contracts with two companies — Cognosante LLC and CSRA Inc. — that assisted with ACA enrollment in 18 cities last year, including Charlotte.

On top of that, the number of days for sign up has been cut in half. Folks looking to enroll in the ACA will have from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Last year, the enrollment period extended through January.

The combination has the potential to sharply reduce the number of ACA enrollments in a state that once had some of the highest sign-up rates in the country. In the first four years of the ACA insurance exchanges, enrollments in North Carolina surpassed Obama administration projections. During 2014 and 2015, final signups were as much as 125 percent above targets.

Low-income neighborhoods in Mecklenburg County had some of the strongest enrollment activity in the state and the uninsurance rate in Mecklenburg County dropped from 17 percent in 2013 down to 9 percent in 2016, according to data compiled by the advocacy organization Enroll America.

According to Jason Foreman from HIV advocacy organization RAIN, the area had increased enrollment year over year.

But this past year, with fewer resources put toward inducing people to sign up for insurance, North Carolina only signed up 84 percent of the people predicted to enroll with only 549,158 enrollments, instead of the 650,000 originally predicted to sign up.

Navigators still show the way

Officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided not to renew the enrollment assistance contracts, which began in 2013. CMS spokeswoman Jane Norris told the Associated Press that the contract to provide in-person support was temporary to help get the exchanges off the ground.

It was never meant to be long term, she added.

That being said, Charlotte has not lost all of its in-person enrollment assistance.

The NC Navigator Consortium, a group of 14 health care, social service and legal aid organizations, is still operating and ready to provide in-person assistance.

Jennifer Simmons with Legal Aid of North Carolina is the director of the Navigator Consortium Project. She said the group was encouraged to apply for its usual grant with CMS, and is optimistic that they will be funded. They expect to hear back on Sept. 2. The group also receives foundation funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Trust.

Simmons and other navigators say that there has been a lot of confusion about what health care coverage might be available with all the chatter surrounding the recently proposed federal legislation to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act.

“The message we want people to hear is that enrollment is open,” she said. “There will still be financial help with premiums and the cost of healthcare.”

She said some of the procedures from prior years are the same: to make an appointment for in-person assistance, North Carolinians can visit Find Local Help website or call the state’s ACA enrollment hotline 1-855-733-3711 to schedule an appointment.

Simmons said while Cognosante LLC did help people in Charlotte sign up last year, it was a separate effort from that of the NC Navigator Consortium.

Julieanne Taylor, health insurance navigator with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, said her people are amping up for the next open enrollment.

“Our main concern is the shorter open enrollment period. We don’t want to stretch our people,” she said. “We are going to need more manpower this session.”

Legal Services of Southern Piedmont services Charlotte and is a member of the consortium.

Taylor said there are already four Mecklenburg County enrollment events scheduled for the fall. More details are coming on those soon.

“Every event we host during open enrollment is slammed with consumers. We are busy, and we have to refer some to the next event,” she said.

Legal Services of Southern Piedmont has four navigators, Taylor said. And she hopes to hire more once they hear back about funding in September. She is also looking for volunteers to help with the open enrollment.

“We are full steam ahead,” Taylor said.

Simmons said they are encouraging people to start enrollment earlier and get their questions answered before open enrollment starts so their appointments can move along more quickly.

“We have always strived to make appointments available as needed,” she said. “We expect to be working a little more frenetically.”

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...