David Branch is an Obamacare navigator with Insure Georgia, and he’s shown here at an enrollment event he planned in the lobby of the Adamsville Regional Health Center in Atlanta on Wednesday, with customers few and far between. In the lull, he’s scheduling an appointment over the phone with someone to sign up for health insurance the following day. The Trump administration this year cut deeply into funding for advertising such events. But the events are always hit or miss, navigators say, and enrollment in other venues is surging all the same. (PHOTO by CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Obamacare enrollment surging, so far, in Georgia, across nation

Nick Anderson prepared for weeks for open enrollment as an Affordable Care Act navigator in his west-central Georgia territory. And as he hit up local spots asking to post fliers and publicize the Nov. 1 start date, he noticed something different this year.

“They’re way more energized about spreading the word,” he said.

That energy has apparently paid off — at least so far. In the opening days of Obamacare’s enrollment window, Anderson’s enrollments are tracking more than double the rate of last year, and the nation’s is surging, too. Numbers released Thursday by the Trump administration show 601,462 people signed up for an Obamacare health plan in the first four days of enrollment, a much faster rate than last year’s opening weeks.

It’s buoyant news for advocates of the health care system. They have feared enrollment will tank this year after months of confusion in Washington over repealing Obamacare, as well as concrete steps the Trump administration took that weakened it, such as cutting the enrollment period off at Dec. 15.

The administration would prefer to repeal the ACA altogether but has taken smaller steps that it can under the law, also known as Obamacare.

But strangely enough, people running the sign-ups say all that may have had an opposite effect, publicizing the open enrollment period on its own and galvanizing the system’s supporters.

Six hundred thousand over four days is far faster enrollment than last year’s. This year’s kickoff averages about 150,000 people a day. In comparison, last year’s first data announcement by the federal government showed just over 1 million people enrolling over the first 12 days. That’s a longer time period so the comparison is not exact, but it averages about 83,000 people a day.

This year’s signees are not only returning customers: Most were renewing their ACA plans, but more than one in five was a new client.

Geogians said they’re seeing the rush here, too.

“In many areas of the state we’ve seen a surge in enrollment,” said Fred Ammons, the CEO of the parent company of Insure Georgia, the organization of navigators that employs Anderson.

The Trump administration cut the sign-up period in half, announced Obamacare was dead, and cut off key subsidies that led to many seeing higher premiums. But each of those actions has prompted a wave of media attention, Ammons said. In addition, he said, “the uncertainty may be leading people to, you know, get in while they can.”

The question remains what will happen in the remaining five weeks. The actions of Obamacare’s critics in Congress and the White House may not have emptied enrollment, but they have definitely had an effect.

In Americus, Nema Etheridge wasn’t about to wait to renew her plan after she endured months of anxiety over the hullabaloo from Washington and what it meant for her insurance. The second day of ACA open enrollment, she walked into her agent’s office.

But she walked out without a new plan.

As the agent punched in her data and showed her options, the prices staring at her from the computer screen were more than 50 percent higher than what she was paying already. The plan that now costs her $364 a month would see a rate jump of $200. She’s just over the income threshold for a subsidy, she said, and doesn’t believe she’ll qualify for a discount.

“I said, ‘OK what does it look like if I don’t have insurance?’”

He walked her through it.

She’s hoping her employer might find a way to group with others to offer a cheaper plan, or that she can find something else. She hopes to be insured, she just doesn’t know how.

“I don’t save now anyway,” she said. “There’s no obvious buffer.” She’s starting to think about having kids, but she can’t see how that’s possible if she loses that much more money.

And Marc Jenkins, another navigator, is also feeling the effects of the cuts and confusion from Washington.

On Nov. 1, the first day of open enrollment, he set up his desk at a Goodwill store in Bartow County, with his laptop and stacks of flyers and pamphlets, ready to enroll or educate all comers. Over the entire three-hour stint not a soul came by.

“I’m not allowed to spend anything on advertising,” Jenkins said.

On another occasion, he walked into an event to set up and was turned away. The managers were used to the previous navigator, who lived in the community. But Jenkins, of metro Atlanta, had to take over her territory after funding cuts and they weren’t sure who he was.

The administration cut funding for navigators across the country late in the game, and with little time to react, Insure Georgia has tried to move staff around, lay people off and seek donations to fill the gap.

Some of that is working.

Anderson’s territory has expanded but he’s still at it, and especially with the recent confusion he reached out personally to some of his previous clients. One of them, Laura Walker, said it’s the only way she’d join up.

“It’s too overwhwleming,” said the Jasper County mother of three. “It’s like a funeral director. It’s something you don’t want to deal with, you know it’s going to suck and be bad, so you just want someone to take care of you.”

For some people HealthCare.gov’s sign-up website is easy. But she got to the income page and gave up. Walker lives on money she gets from family while she is a caretaker for her grandfather, which makes filling out forms confusing.

With her low income she gets a significant subsidy, and she was pleased to see her premium will not go up much. It’s the second year she’s had her Obamacare plan, and she had no insurance at all for years before that. She had medical bills once, but the care providers mostly had to eat the expense when she couldn’t pay.

She likes being able to pay. For now.

“The first thing I asked Nick yesterday when I met with him was ‘Are you still going to be around if they change the law?’ ” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Anderson is waiting to see what wins out, the confusion or the insurance. Every year there are events that are duds, and others that aren’t. As to whether the interest so far will continue to the end, he said, “there’s no way to judge.”

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