Health law sign-up season opens

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From a tailgating party with Gator fans in Gainesville to a beer festival in Pensacola, Floridians had plenty of opportunities Saturday to get in-person help signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The second enrollment season has begun.

Despite opposition from Republican lawmakers, nearly one million Floridians signed up for so-called “Obamacare” insurance last year and 91 percent received financial help to pay for their premiums. But educations efforts are still crucial this year as health advocates say they must work harder to pinpoint consumers who sat out last year. They also must re-enroll last year’s consumers.

Advocates say many consumers still don’t know that they can only buy health insurance for a few months out of the year and that they may qualify for significant financial help to pay for premiums.

The pent up demand for insurance remains high in a state that has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country.

“All my Portuguese clients are calling already. They call me and say, ‘make sure you have an appointment for me,'” said Allie Stern, a Fort Lauderdale area enrollment counselor who had already heard from more than two dozen consumers before Saturday.

A line formed outside a Jacksonville mall Saturday morning where more than 200 people attended an enrollment event. Most were first timers. In Gainesville, health counselor Jennette Hamersmith and a volunteer went from party to party as football game attendees blasted country music and tossed Frisbees. Many of the college students were unaware they could be fined if they didn’t purchase health insurance.

Enroll America, a non-profit heading up outreach across the U.S., targeted Hispanic consumers during an enrollment event at a Miami hospital.

Enrollment among that demographic lagged in Florida, where they comprised about 19 percent, or 106,647 out of the 983,775 who signed up. (The numbers don’t reveal a complete picture since applicants were not required to report their race. Just a little more than half of Florida applicants did so, according to federal health officials.)

Cost was still a big question Saturday as consumers got their first glimpse of 2015 plans and how monthly premiums compared to last year.

Fourteen companies, including three new insurers, are planning to sell to Floridians. Of the 11 returning plans, eight filed average rate increases ranging from 11 to 23 percent, and three filed rate decreases ranging from 5 to 12 percent. Florida Blue, the state’s largest insurer, is raising its premiums by an average of 18 percent.

James Pillow rushed into buying a health plan for his wife and son on the new HealthCare.gov marketplace last spring. Now the Orlando resident thinks he may switch policies. Pillow was losing coverage through an employer for whom he worked part time, so he hastily purchased a plan that has been a little too pricy.

“I probably will reduce my coverage a little bit,” said 39-year-old Pillow, who owns an online retail company. “I think I probably bought a little bit more than I need.”

Whether you’re signing up for the first time or looking to change your plan from last year, here are a few things to remember:

Open enrollment is much shorter this year. It starts Saturday and runs through Feb. 15. The fine for staying uninsured the full year also jumps to $325 from $95.

For Floridians who bought plans last year, coverage will renew automatically if they do nothing, but that may not produce the best result. The returning customers could miss out on lower-premium options and get stuck with outdated and possibly incorrect subsidies. In most cases, they have until Dec. 15 to update their income information or switch insurance plans, in order to have the changes take effect on Jan. 1.

Current customers who got tax credits this year will have to file new tax forms to prove they got the right amount. Too much subsidy and their tax refunds will be reduced. Too little, and the government will pay them.

The good news is www.healthcare.gov likely won’t be a problem like last year. The troubled website has been retooled to withstand last season’s peak loads and beyond with at least 125,000 simultaneous users. The online application has been pared from 76 screens to 16 for most consumers The online application has also been pared from 76 screens to 16 for most consumers.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.