Affordable Care Act outreach specialist Liseth Fernandez and ACA navigator Viviana Cossio explain open enrollment to attendees at a festival last month at the Plaza Las Americas mall in Lilburn. The agency Georgia Refugee Health and Mental Health has set up to target Latinos who need insurance, and for others. This year GRHMH is Georgia’s only ACA navigator. (PHOTO by Ariel Hart /
Photo: PHOTO by Ariel Hart
Photo: PHOTO by Ariel Hart

Obamacare sign-ups in Georgia lag behind last year’s numbers

Georgia sign-ups for 2019 Affordable Care Act health insurance plans are lagging behind last year’s pace, according to federal data released for the first four weeks of open enrollment.

Open enrollment still has a ways to go, at least until Dec. 15.

The lag in sign-ups here is slight, perhaps just a couple thousand fewer so far, so it’s hard to know what it means until enrollment is completed, said Bill Custer, a health finance analyst at Georgia State University. But it might be a result of less publicity and help for customers this year.

The federal government under President Barack Obama allocated $3.7 million for “navigator” assistance in Georgia to groups that guide customers to choose a plan on, the federal website. Last year, the Trump administration cut that to $1.4 million, and it eliminated the budget for television advertising. This year it cut navigation funding in the state to $499,995.

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“Just because we’re doing the same as last year doesn’t mean there wasn’t the potential for doing a lot better had there been consistent marketing,” Custer said. He points out that plan prices this year have finally stabilized. Also, news about the program has been comparatively quiet. Last year, prices jumped 50 percent or more, and negative publicity about the program from Washington was relentless.

“Now just holding the status quo is a credit to the stabilization of the markets,” Custer said.

Last year, experts feared all that turmoil at the federal level — including a bid in Congress that fell just short of eliminating the program — would lead to a collapse in sign-ups. But that didn’t happen. Researchers found that news coverage of the fights had had the effect of actually publicizing the open enrollment period, helping people out. In the end, 481,000 Georgians enrolled in plans for this year, just a 2.6 percent dip from the previous year.

Navigators knew that wouldn’t be the same this year. They also knew that ongoing news coverage of election campaigns this year would crowd out news about open enrollment.

Open enrollment is slated to end Dec. 15 unless the government announces an extension for Georgia as a result of the emergency declaration earlier this year for Hurricane Michael.

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