NEWS

ACA Enrollment 2018: What You Need to Know

Larry Levitt, Senior Vice President for Special Initiatives and Co-Executive Director, Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance, Kaiser Family Foundation

One in an ongoing series of articles about the Trump administration's efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

Since its inception, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has cut the number of uninsured Black Americans in half. But changes to the enrollment period for 2018 under the Trump administration could undermine efforts and wipe out much of that progress.

While the ACA, which is also known as Obamacare, has thus far survived effort after effort to "repeal and replace" it, no one is resting easy or believing for a minute that it is safe. Most recently, President Donald Trump announced an executive order stating that the federal government would no longer pay insurance companies for subsidizing the cost of health insurance for people with low incomes.

The president's executive order won't directly affect the 2018 open-enrollment season, but it could have an indirect effect on the marketplace by creating confusion for consumers, according to Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives and co-executive director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance. Over time, it could also lead to a rise in insurance premiums for everybody as insurers seek to recoup their rising costs.

But there are other threats that could keep Black Americans from enjoying health-care coverage in 2018. Here is how to avoid them.

The open-enrollment period is shorter. This year, open enrollment on HealthCare.gov runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15. That means it ends six weeks earlier than last year, and if you aren't aware of the change, you could miss enrollment altogether. States that run their own marketplaces determine when the enrollment period ends. Thus far, eight states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Washington—and the District of Columbia have extended enrollment past the Dec. 15 cutoff.

Don't expect any reminders. If you depended on television and radio ads last year to remind you to enroll in health coverage, you likely won't get this courtesy in 2017. That's because the Trump administration is spending a whopping 90 percent less on advertising the open-enrollment season. So it's up to you to mark it on your calendar and get it done.

You'll probably have less help. Not only is the Trump administration cutting funding for advertising, but it is also cutting the funds for navigators—people who help consumers sign up—by 41 percent. That means it may be more difficult to find someone to guide you through the process, or you may have to wait on the phone for long periods of time to speak to somebody who can help you. Don't get frustrated if you have questions about the process. Also, be willing to look for others who might be able to help you, such as the staff at local community-based organizations and federally qualified health centers.

You may have less time than you think. One of the benefits of enrolling online is the flexibility to do it when you want to do it. However, that's not the reality with this year's open-enrollment season. If you're planning to sign up on the weekend, note that most Sundays, the site will be down for 12 hours at a time for maintenance. There may also be other outages, so plan your time wisely. Again, if you live in a state that manages its own marketplace on a separate website, this doesn't apply.

What You Can Do

We need our health care, so even though it may be more difficult to enroll this year, we must be proactive and get it done. The best thing you can do to avoid any unforeseen glitches is to start the enrollment process early, Karen Pollitz, senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, recommends. In previous years, there has been a surge of activity at the end of the enrollment period, and when that happened, it would affect the responsiveness of the HealthCare.gov website, according to Pollitz. Don't take that chance this year. With fewer patient navigators and a less friendly process overall, delays could leave you without the coverage you need.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.