Exchange enrollment hits record level in state

Georgia had the third-highest number of people signing up for coverage during this year’s special enrollment period for the federally run health insurance exchanges.

The state’s 147,000 enrollees were exceeded only by Florida and Texas among the 36 states that use the enrollment platform, according to federal data recently released.

Exchange enrollment — like open enrollment for many employer health plans — is normally finished before the coverage year begins, and only people who have had a significant family or coverage change can apply outside that window. But this year, the Biden administration extended the enrollment period to Aug. 15, citing the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The total enrollment in the Georgia exchange as of August was nearly 550,000, a record level.

“This level of interest from Georgia individuals and families demonstrates that the marketplace is serving a valuable purpose and meeting its intended goal of keeping people covered in an affordable and comprehensive way, even while many deal with big life changes brought on by the pandemic,” said Laura Colbert of the consumer advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future.

The Biden administration’s changes this year included extra savings for already enrolled consumers. These extra discounts will continue through 2022.

And the feds recently announced they’re extending the normal Open Enrollment period this coming year by 30 extra days, and will conclude Jan. 15. The government is also expanding services provided by insurance counselors, called navigators, who offer free assistance to consumers shopping for policies on the exchanges.

Exchanges in individual states were created by the Affordable Care Act for people who don’t have job-based or government coverage.

The growth in Georgians’ enrollment in the exchange comes as Gov. Brian Kemp pursues his waiver plan to replace the set-up with a privately run system. That has run into sharp questions from federal health officials, who have requested more financial information on the Georgia blueprint.

Kemp discussing waiver plans last year.

Another Georgia waiver plan, to increase Medicaid enrollment in a limited form of expansion, is also in limbo. A state Department of Community Health spokesman said Wednesday that there’s no update on either initiative.

States must obtain waivers from the federal government to change certain health programs. The two Georgia proposals were approved by the Trump administration, but the Biden White House has shown reluctance to continue that approval.

The Medicaid waiver plan pushed by the Kemp administration has strict eligibility requirements. To qualify for the program, a person would have to put a certain number of hours a month into a job or other approved activity. Work requirements proposed in other states have been rejected by the Biden administration.

More options than ever

The 2022 exchange is shaping up as a marketplace with greater competition.

Five insurers have proposed to enter the individual exchange for 2022, bringing the state’s total to 11. Three of the five companies – Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Cigna – were on the exchange in previous years but dropped out. Two – Bright Health and Friday Health Plan – are new entrants to the market.

The five would join holdovers Alliant, Ambetter, Blue Cross, CareSource, Kaiser Permanente and Oscar.

Eleven would be the most options for consumers to pick from since the exchange opened in 2014.

Federal health officials say that nationally, there will be four times as many navigators — 1,500 in all — for 2022 coverage.

Bill Custer, a health insurance consultant in Georgia, said Wednesday that the exchange in the state shows “a pretty stable market’’ that’s attractive to insurers.

“It’s functioning the way it was intended,’’ he said.