Counselors hope for surge in North Dakota health care sign-ups as deadlines for coverage loom

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BISMARCK, North Dakota — Enrollment counselors in North Dakota hope for a surge in sign-ups under the Affordable Care Act so that new customers have coverage when the new year begins.

The second enrollment period to get benefits began last month and runs through Feb. 15. But Monday is the deadline for new customers to sign up if they want their coverage to begin on Jan. 1.

Monday also is the deadline for returning customers to update or change their coverage.

Neil Scharpe, who is in charge of the North Dakota's 18 navigators who are helping inform people of their options under the new law, said many people could pay premium or deductible increases if they don't switch plans.

"People should definitely shop around," Scharpe said. "At the very least, people should review their account."

Just over 11,300 people signed up for health insurance in North Dakota using the federal insurance marketplace during the first enrollment period, state Insurance Department data show.

Those currently enrolled will be automatically renewed in their current plan if they do nothing. Scharpe said after signing up, new enrollees must submit a payment before they are covered.

North Dakota's certified health guides, who are funded by a $451,000 federal grant, are meeting with people individually or with groups at town hall meetings, encouraging them to enroll in the online marketplaces, where consumers can compare plans and buy health insurance.

Scharpe said the counselors have seen an increase statewide in the number of people inquiring about the coverage.

"That's encouraging and it's about 50-50 for new enrollees and those who are reenrolling," he said.

The health law requires most people to have health insurance. The penalty for not having it in 2015 is going up to $325 per adult or 2 percent of household income, whichever is greater, up to a cap.

North Dakota is one of about three dozen states where the federal government is running the marketplaces.

Three insurers offer coverage in the state: Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Medica and Sanford.

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