AUGUSTA, Maine — With the first important health care exchange deadline looming, Maine residents are scrambling to sign up for coverage to ensure their benefits will kick in with the start of the new year.
Those who assist Mainers with sign-ups say they've seen a spike in requests for over-the-phone help and in-person appointments over the last week as residents rush to get enrolled by Monday — the last day to sign up for benefits to kick in by Jan. 1.
"A lot of people are very stressed," said Patti Dorman, a certified application counselor in Caribou, who's helping people sign up for plans on HealthCare.gov, the online exchange offering coverage in Maine and 36 other states. "They want to make sure they enroll for Jan. 1," she said.
As the deadline nears, sign-ups have picked up nationally, with more than 618,000 selecting a plan for 2015 from Nov. 29 through Dec. 5, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said this week. It was the highest weekly number reported since enrollment began Nov. 15. Overall, nearly 1.4 million have signed up so far this enrollment period, which extends through Feb. 15.
Monday's deadline is particularly important for those who signed up for coverage on the exchange last year, assisters say.
If people do nothing, they'll be automatically re-enrolled in their same plan, but could miss out on a cheaper coverage. It will also be more difficult to switch plans if they want to later.
Meanwhile, people who don't update their income information could see next year's monthly bills go up because the subsidies they receive from the federal government to help pay for the plans will likely change.
"If people don't do anything, they're going to see their bill go up a bit from December to January for the most part," said Jake Grindle, health services navigator for Western Maine Community Action. But, even if people miss Monday's deadline, they can still update their income information to ensure they're getting the right amount of subsidies, Grindle said.
While many people nationally will see their premiums rise next year, Maine consumer's premiums are going down slightly on average, according to figures released this month by the federal government.
Nationally, the average premium for the second-lowest cost silver plan — the benchmark plan used to set subsidy levels— is going up an average of 2 percent. But in Maine it's going down an average of 2 percent.
Mitchell Stein, an independent consultant who specializes in health care policy, said Maine is seeing some relief in part because there's more competition on the exchange, or marketplace, this year. Massachusetts-based Harvard Pilgrim joined Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Maine Community Health Options to offer coverage.
But that doesn't mean that everyone is going to see their rates drop.
Debbie Plourde re-enrolled in her Maine Community Health Options silver plan this week with Dorman's help. The 63-year-old retired Caribou resident said her premium is about to go up a little more than $20 dollars a month — from about $156 to $179 — next year.
But Dorman says that despite the slight increase, she's grateful that the exchange has provided her access with insurance that she can afford.
"It has taken a weight off my shoulders," Plourde said.
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