Open enrollment starts Thursday amid cuts to health insurance navigators

Open enrollment for health insurance coverage on the open exchange begins this week and runs just 45 days, much less than in years past.

And with additional cuts to the navigator program and outreach funding, health care officials are urging consumers to act sooner rather than later to ensure they have the coverage they need by the Dec. 15 deadline.

“There are organizations across the state gearing up for Nov. 1 to make sure Montanans who need coverage and rely on the market place have the information and support they need to get covered,” said Olivia Riutta, outreach and engagement manager with the Montana Primary Care Association. “We’re encouraging folks to start early. Open enrollment is only 45 days. In the past it’s been longer.”

Consumers looking for coverage will have more choices under the Affordable Care Act this year, but fewer sources of help when trying to navigate the maze that is health insurance.

Republicans in Congress have worked to dismantle the ACA and have cut insurance counselors, or navigators, by more than 80 percent, leaving many counties without assistance. The budget was sliced this year to just $10 million, down $63 million in 2016.

“Montana saw some pretty deep cuts, as did a lot of states, to the navigator and outreach funding,” said Riutta. “We don’t currently have a navigator grantee in the state. It’s unfortunate we’re going to head into this open enrollment period without that capacity. But there’s a lot of folks working as hard as they can to make sure the needs are met within local communities.”

Riutta said that around 45,000 Montanans continue to rely on the open market when buying health insurance. Of those, around 87 percent receive some form of financial assistance to help cover their monthly premiums.

Most Montanans who enroll in the open market quality for financial assistance, she said.

“What we know is that historically, one of the reasons people have never had health insurance was because of the cost,” Riutta said. “But through the ACA and through the marketplace, those tax credits really support those Montanans who need help paying for their monthly premiums.”

Health care experts are also cautioning consumers to watch out for so-called “junk” plans and “Christian ministry sharing” plans, many of which appear on some shopping sites but don’t offer the coverage found in other plans.

One of those sharing plans, known as Medi-Share, was reauthorized by Matt Rosendale after it was initially banned in Montana for fraudulent practices.

Consumers can visit Cover Montana for help in navigating the system, Riutta said.

“It’s a site we run with many partners to provide information for Montanans who need information about affordable insurance options, and connect them with somebody in their community who can sit down and answer questions and enroll them in coverage,” she said.