With about a week and a half left in the open enrollment period for health insurance purchased on the federal exchange, the number of Montanans who have enrolled so far is down.
By Monday, 10,560 people in the state had signed up for plans with coverage starting in 2020, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. At the same point last year, the fourth week of the enrollment period, 11,241 had enrolled. In 2017, 13,926 had signed up by the fourth week.
The open enrollment period ends Dec. 15. Plans sold on the federal exchange this year for Montana will have lower premiums than in years past, attributable to a reinsurance program the state Legislature passed earlier this year.
In June, all three insurance companies that sell plans on the exchange in Montana proposed premium reductions, citing the reinsurance program, with decreases ranging from 8% to 14%.
Enrollment numbers typically jump in the final week or so of the period. In 2018, according to numbers from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, 45,733 Montanans enrolled for health insurance plans on the exchange. That was down about 2,000 from the year before.
Enrollment has declined in the last few years, as the period to sign up for coverage has been cut in half, advertising money from the federal government was slashed, and the mandate individuals carry health insurance coverage became toothless.
In 2018 Montana had no applicants to be navigators that help people select insurance plans, after the funding for the program was cut under the Trump administration, from $63 million in 2016 to $36.1 million the following year and $10 million by 2018. Funding was $10 million again this year, with $100,000 available in Montana.
This year, however, Montana had one applicant to be a navigator, First Choice Services, a West Virginia organization certified by the state Auditor's office.
First Choice Services is working under the name Montana Navigator, said outreach coordinator Jeremy Smith.
Their number is 406-430-0005.
In other parts of the country, the organization operates gambling addiction, substance use disorder, tobacco quit and suicide crisis telephone help lines. After seeing no one apply for Montana's grant, Smith said First Choice Services considered expanding here and using the same help-by-phone model it has elsewhere. It also applied for and got grants to provide navigator services in New Hampshire and Iowa this year.
First Choice Services had also worked under a navigator grant in West Virginia, where it saw its budget cut from $600,000 to $100,000.
"We revamped our program and based it from our home office as a social service help line," Smith said. "We really didn't miss a beat. We were still able to help just as many people as we always did."
Smith said his organization has been able to overcome not being able to sit down and meet with people in person by coaching staff to be personable and make sure they don't confuse people to think it's a sales call.