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Open Enrollment Deadline For Health Insurance Approaches

Massachusetts Health Connector's online notice to residents signing up or renewing health insurance plans through the extention.

Massachusetts residents who want coverage starting January 1st must enroll in health insurance through the Obamacare marketplace by Saturday. Poor and immigrant populations are having the most trouble signing up.

Open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act through the Massachusetts Health Connector ends January 23rd, but if a health insurance plan is not finalized by December 23rd, residents could have a one-month coverage lapse.

The state Department of Public Health program helps residents apply, shop and compare health and dental coverage plans from Massachusetts’ leading insurers.

William Cruz, an insurance specialist at Community Health Programs’ Pittsfield branch says it’s been difficult to help residents – especially immigrants and non-English speakers – navigate the enrollment process.

“I think one of the challenges are that people are receiving letters, conflicting letters,” Cruz says.

Cruz says a lot of information is mailed out by the Health Connector and organizations like Community Health Programs, trying to educate residents on insurance options. But it can be overwhelming, especially if the notices are in the wrong language.

“Normally, they receive the letters in Spanish,” Cruz says. “But, again, they are confusing letters so they are still coming here and getting help from us.”

CHP provides healthcare services and guidance to 34,000 patients in Berkshire County – 60 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Some residents get confused when asked to submit additional information like age, phone number, income or address to renew their health insurance plan when nothing has changed.

“And they are actually coming here and we renew their application and update any income – we have to go through the whole application again,” Cruz says.

Massachusetts has one of the lowest uninsured rates in the country. Berkshire Immigrant Center Executive Director Brooke Mead says immigrant populations have the most difficulty enrolling. There are 15,000 immigrants living in the county — 10 percent of the population.

“Definitely, there has been a lot more fear, right, in the past year and confusion about if you use any sort of public benefit even if you qualify for it,” Mead says.

Immigrants usually don’t qualify for benefits until they have been permanent residents for five years, or become U.S. citizens. Some families try to fly under the individual mandate radar and opt out.

“There’s a fear that it is going to somehow lead ICE to them, but then there is this other fear – they’re afraid that that somehow they won’t be able to become citizens,” Mead says. 

The confusion has delayed the enrollment process.

“The good news is it seems enrollments have increased this year over last year,” Adam Hinds says.

State Senator Adams Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, says when the latest Massachusetts Health Connector open enrollment period went live in November, 400 customer service assistants were employed to help residents, and third-party specialists like CHP, sign people up. Within the first few days, DPH enrollment was 40 percent higher than last year.

As of December 10th, more than 260,000 plans had been selected, including new enrollees and renewals. That means roughly 29,000 are without coverage through the exchange, and could face fines for violating the individual mandate.

Hinds says he acknowledges the difficulty that immigrants must be facing under the Trump administration, which has sought to repeal and replace the ACA. Indeed, the individual mandate is a casualty of the tax overhaul package.

“The more this administration is really discouraging enrollment the more costs go up for everybody,” Hinds says. “Look, it’s a confusing system. That’s why the more we can encourage efficiencies, including across providers and making sure they are working together to make this more efficient and effective from a cost perspective.”

To add to the confusion, most of the country concluded open enrollment December 15th. Massachusetts’ deadline is January 23rd, but first-time buyers need to act before Saturday.

Connecticut ends open enrollment Dec. 22. Although the formal deadline has passed, Vermont is also still accepting applications through Friday. New York, December 31st.

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