WASHINGTON–The number of people who enrolled in health care plans this year through the Maryland Health Connection has dropped by 10.4 percent at this point, despite efforts to increase the number of insured including a larger call center staff, a streamlined website and more public knowledge of the program.
The enrollment period, which ended Feb. 15, saw 264,245 people sign up compared to 295,077 who enrolled during last year’s longer open enrollment period, said Andrew Ratner, director of marketing and research for the Maryland Health Connection.
Those numbers, though, are still not final, Ratner explained, because anyone who started an application or tried to reach a call center to enroll on Feb. 15 will be able to sign up until February 28.
Ratner said that while there are tens of thousands of incomplete applications on the health connection website, it is difficult to know which of these people will actually finish their application before Feb. 28.
More than 8,500 people tried to reach the call center on Feb. 15, Ratner said, which is why the health connection decided to extend the deadline.
Of those who have signed up so far, Ratner said 119,096 people enrolled in qualified health plans and 145,149 enrolled in Medicaid.
Last year, only 63,002 signed up for qualified health plans compared to this year’s 119,096, an 89 percent increase.
Barbara Gruber, a resident of Mount Washington in Baltimore and an adjunct art professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, said that while signing up for insurance through the Maryland Health Connection was difficult, it has saved her money.
After struggling to sign up online last year, Gruber said in a recent interview that she scheduled an appointment with a navigator who helped her pick a plan. The Maryland Health Connection trains navigators to help people select and sign up for plans.
“They helped me figure out what insurance to get and they got it for me,” Gruber said. “I was desperate to get insurance.”
Ratner acknowledged that signing up still takes effort, and for some, it may be complicated. For that reason, he said, the Health Connection increased its call center staff from fewer than 100 employees last year to 350 this year.
Organizations like the Healthcare for All Coalition and Capital Regional Health Connector have helped connect those looking to get insured to navigators in their area.
Mary Anderson, the public information officer for the Capital Regional Health Connector said the trained navigators who work for the connector, which serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, speak over six different languages.
“In this Capital Region, you’ve got a very diverse population,” Anderson said. “[Having the translations] was a strategic decision here in Montgomery County and I think in Prince George’s County as well.”
Offering help from navigators who speak different languages is just one way health care officials are trying to reach the uninsured. The Healthcare for All Coalition used a radio spot that features Adam Jones, a star outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles. Vincent DeMarco, president of the Healthcare for All Coalition, said he is hoping that the ad targeted young people.
Those who are uninsured and who are low or middle income in outlying areas of the state are a demographic the Maryland Health Exchange is still trying to reach.
“Like any business you first get those customers who are most interested, and after that you’re trying to reach customers who know less about it,” Ratner said.
“I think the only way [Maryland Health Connection] could be improved is that they could just get more people to sign up,” Gruber said.
She added that she wants people to know about the benefits of receiving coverage through the Maryland Health Connection, namely saving money.
Gruber said she pays $139 per month for her plan at the silver level, as compared to the over $500 a month she paid on her previous plan. Gruber said that even though the costs of some of her medications increased, the overall expenses she paid for health care decreased by a couple hundred dollars per month.
“It’s important for all of us that people get enrolled,” DeMarco said. “The fact of the matter is that all of us benefit because when people don’t have insurance and get sick, we pay for it.”
While enrollment for 2015 will end on Feb. 28, Ratner said the health connection will start looking toward implementation and assisting the newly insured with using their plans.
“For a lot of people going through the exchange, having insurance is something new,” Ratner said. “It’s something we’ll have to help by managing health care and insurance. Our ultimate goal, of course, is a healthier society and a less costly medical system.”