Baltimore Sun
ndrea McDaniels

January 21, 2016

The number of Marylanders who have signed up for private insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act is 60 percent higher than last year, and state health officials are making a final push for more ahead of the Jan. 31 enrollment deadline.

About 155,000 have enrolled in private plans, surpassing a goal of 150,000, according to officials with the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the state’s online insurance marketplace.

Another 300,000 in Maryland have signed up for or renewed Medicaid coverage, officials said. Medicaid enrollment, which includes new policy-holders and renewals, is three times higher than last year in the state.

Enrollment is expected to climb in the final days as procrastinators rush to beat the deadline.

“We really want to go into the last 10 days with a lot of energy and have a super finish,” Carolyn Quattrocki, the health exchange’s executive director, said Thursday at a news conference at Perkins Square Baptist Church in Baltimore.

This is the third annual enrollment since the law, popularly known as Obamacare, went into effect. An estimated 800,000 Maryland residents were without health insurance at the time, but about half were undocumented and not eligible for insurance coverage under the law.

The exchange focused this year on finding what officials called “the hard to reach.” They estimated that nearly 300,000 in the state were uninsured when enrollment season began in November.

Using health data, exchange officials identified the 20 ZIP codes with the most uninsured — mostly in the Washington suburbs and on the Eastern Shore — and targeted marketing in those areas. They also used more focused marketing. A rock band and social media were used to attract young people, bilingual radio ads to draw Spanish speakers, and needle exchange vans to reach out to drug addicts to persuade the persistently uninsured to enroll.

The largest strides have been made with African-Americans and on the Eastern Shore. So far, 30,000 african-Americans have enrolled, up from 23,000 last year.

Churches across the state plan to help people enroll Sunday in a campaign dubbed Super Health Sunday. The event will be postponed until the following Sunday, the last day to enroll, if the expected snowstorm cripples the state.

“We found that churches are trusted messengers,” Quattrocki said. “We find that people are more receptive when the message come from somebody they trust.”

The Rev. Cleveland T.A. Mason II of Perkins Square Baptist Church said he and other clergy leaders have been promoting enrollment for the past three months from the pulpit, during church announcements and in newsletters. Church leaders often see the effect on congregants who don’t have insurance.

“We get to see firsthand what happens to people when sickness comes,” said Mason, who heads the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland.

Health advocates also are airing again a radio advertisement featuring Baltimore Orioles star Adam Jones that helped boost enrollment last year. The spot promotes a number that people can call, 211, to get information on enrollment.

“We have made tremendous progress over the last couple of years enrolling hundreds of thousands of Marylanders into the health care they need and now we are going to enroll many, many more,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative. “If you’re out there and you don’t have health insurance, get yourself enrolled.”

Part of the message this year focuses on the subsidies that health officials have found many people do not know about. Nine out of 10 people enrollees received subsidies to help pay for insurance last year. Others might not know that they qualify for Medicaid.

Some might have more incentive to buy insurance this year because the penalty for opting out is increasing. Next year’s penalty is 2.5 percent of gross household income or $695 per individual, whichever is greater. The 2015 penalty was 2 percent of gross income, or $325 per individual.

For the cost, exchange officials are telling people, it makes more sense to get coverage than to pay a penalty and not have insurance.

There is also extra emphasis on Medicaid enrollees as the state moves Medicaid patients from a government computer system to the exchange. Health advocates and state health officials were concerned that some people might not have gotten the message to re-enroll.

“We have to do everything we can to educate people and let them know about the change,” said Dianna Rosborough, who works in marketing for Amerigroup Maryland, the state’s largest Medicaid provider, which, along with the Johns Hopkins University and Health System, Kaiser Permanente and Riverside Health, provided funding for the Adam Jones advertisement.

The approaching end of enrollment comes as the Affordable Care Act continues to face criticism and threats from Republican lawmakers in Congress who have tried repeatedly to repeal the law. The House of Representatives will attempt next week to override President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation that would repeal key portions of Obamacare.

Maryland Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes said during Thursday’s news conference that it would be hard to dismantle the law and take away health coverage from millions of people across the country. The Democrats continued to encourage people to enroll.

“We fought hard for this because we realize how important health care is,” Cummings said. “I don’t want it to be said that the opportunity was created and people did not fully take advantage of it. So we’re going to do what we can in our power to remind people of this.”

Last modified: January 22, 2016