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Obamacare enrollment remained strong in Florida, despite obstacles

While health insurance sign-ups through the Affordable Care Act dipped slightly across the nation for 2018, Floridians bought plans at nearly the same levels as last year despite a much shorter enrollment period, a smaller budget for promotion and repeated efforts to kill the program.

Florida led all states with 1.75 million people signing up for Obamacare plans during the Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 open enrollment period.

"We did in six weeks what we did last year in three months," said Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids & Families at the University of South Florida, which works as a "navigator" organization to help people enroll in health care plans. "Imagine what we could have done in three months."

TO YOUR HEALTH: Keep track of trends and new developments that affect you. Visit the Times health page.

The total could still grow after officials count those who took advantage of a two-week extension that was granted to Florida residents because of the hurricane season. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will release a final count in March.

Obamacare advocates in Florida said they are pleased with the results, given the rocky climate surrounding this year's enrollment period.

"A lot of the information going into the open enrollment period was that prices were dramatically increasing, so we didn't know what the impact would be," said Melanie Hall, executive director of the Family Health Care Foundation, which helps people sign up on the federal exchange. "There were a lot of factors that could have contributed to a much weaker enrollment, but that's not what we saw."

Nationally, more than 8.7 million people signed up for health care coverage through state and federal exchanges, compared to 12.2 million last year.

The controversial health care law managed to live on, despite attempts by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress to weaken or repeal it.

In past years, the government paid to market Obamacare on television and in other media, alerting consumers to changes and the open enrollment period. That wasn't the case this year as budget cuts, some as deep as 90 percent, reduced federal programs to get the word out. At the local level, health care "navigators" had to do more with less, and the enrollment period was the shortest it has ever been.

In addition, some Floridians reported serious problems with trying to enroll during the two-week extension in December, as healthcare.gov employees outside the state were not aware of the additional time.

Still, a statewide consumer hotline received nearly 1,000 calls a day for information and appointments, said Ray, the Florida Covering Kids director.

"I feel really good about how we were able to break through the noise," she said. "Our message was getting through even though we were doing more with less. The main point of all of this is that people need health insurance, and that still remains true even through all the nonsense."

Early fears surrounding the Trump administration's decision cut to some government-funded subsidies gave the impression that premiums were likely to skyrocket this year. While those who did not qualify for tax credits faced significantly higher premiums for 2018, Hall said there were more tax credits available this year, making plans more affordable for those who could qualify.

"Prices definitely went up, but the additional tax credits compensated for that," she said.

The vast majority of the 2018 sign-ups across the country, including in Florida, came from people who had used the ACA for health insurance in previous years.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

Obamacare enrollment remained strong in Florida, despite obstacles 01/10/18 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2018 9:42am]
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