While Feds Slash Marketing Budget for Health Care Sign-ups, State Boosts Outreach

A public service ad reminds Marylanders to sign up for health care coverage.

Maryland health officials are urging residents who lack health insurance to take advantage of the open enrollment period now under way — and to purchase coverage for 2020.

The enrollment window began on Nov. 1 and closes in a month, on Dec. 15.

The state’s Health Benefits Exchange is using the final weeks to try to locate as many uninsured residents as possible — particularly those who qualify for federal tax credits — and lure them to their web portal, the Maryland Health Connection.

While the Trump administration has fought to overturn the Obama-era Affordable Care Act in court and slashed funding for outreach efforts almost entirely, the state of Maryland, by contrast, is boosting its spending on communications.

“Maryland, from the start, has wanted to make the investment to make this a success,” said Andrew Ratner, chief of staff for the exchange. “Medical bills are one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy. No one has a crystal ball and can know what will happen next.”

Between now and the end of the enrollment period, the state is encouraging uninsured residents to browse plans, compare prices and sign up online at www.maryandhealthconnection.gov. They can also use the exchange’s toll-free hotline, 1-855-642-8572, or its app, Enroll MHC.

In the week leading up to the Dec. 15 deadline, residents can visit one of more than two dozen “Last Chance” events being held throughout the state.

Cuts in outreach funding at the federal level have resulted in the first increases in the number of uninsured Americans in a decade, experts say.

“The Trump administration has slashed by 88 percent federal funding for evidence-based national outreach programs,” wrote Stan Dorn, the director of the National Center for Coverage Innovation, in an op-ed for medium.com.

“These programs inform the public about available insurance and help families sign up. As a result of inadequate outreach, half of all uninsured families don’t even know that financial assistance is available to help them buy coverage,” he added.

Dorn is a Maryland resident who worked closely with the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative.

The MCHI pushed the General Assembly earlier this year to approval an “easy enrollment” program in which uninsured people can check a box on their tax returns and begin the process of obtaining coverage. The hope is that many of the state’s 130,000 uninsured — many of whom qualify for free or low-cost coverage — will take advantage of the program.

“Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, our Health Benefits Exchange has done everything it can to fully implement the Affordable Care Act,” said the organization’s executive director, Vincent DeMarco. “And that’s tremendous. That shows bipartisan support for this life-saving law.”

The state’s rate of uninsured — 6 percent — is among the lowest in the nation. And it’s half what it was just a few years ago.

Ratner said Maryland doubled its advertising budget — from $1 million to $2 million — in 2018, to help spread the word that premiums were dropping and plans were becoming more affordable.

He also noted that the state’s successful use of technology stands in contrast to the botched rollout of its ACA exchange six years ago.

“The untold story is you have an agency that — admittedly — was a poster child for website failure in the first year has turned around where we have 300,000 downloads of a mobile app and a chat-bot that uses artificial intelligence to give people proper answers when they’re looking for help.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.