Max Denning

The period for enrolling in Affordable Care Act health insurance plans for 2019 concluded Dec. 15, 2018, and 148,180 Oregonians enrolled in plans using HealthCare.gov. While this is the first year the number of enrollees decreased from the year prior, officials with the Oregon Health Insurance Marketplace called the enrollment “strong” and “comparable” to years prior.

Based in La Grande, the Northeast Oregon Network has helped individuals in Union, Wallowa and Baker counties enroll in programs through the government website with help from a grant from OHIM. NEON was the only organization east of the I-5 corridor to receive a grant in 2018 to publicize the open-enrollment period. While the specific amount it received from OHIM is not available, in total the state gave $457,265 to eight nonprofit organizations that it refers to as community partners.

“That (is one of two grants that) funds us to take time to train our staff to help people who are eligible for the Oregon Health Plan and individual plans through the Marketplace,” Holly Sorensen, outreach program coordinator for NEON, said.

In 2017, the federal government shortened the ACA open-enrollment period from 12 to six weeks and slashed the promotion and outreach budget for the program, changes that remained in effect in 2018. OHIM spokesperson Elizabeth Cronen said the abbreviated enrollment period is one of many factors that could have had an impact on the lower enrollment for 2019 health care plans. While Cronen said it isn’t clear why the ’19 enrollment dropped, The New York Times in December 2018 cited the fact there is no longer a mandate for individuals to have insurance as one possible reason. In December 2017, Congress voted to eliminate the tax penalty for people who refused to get health insurance, beginning this year.

In May 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration cut $26 million from key outreach programs for ACA health insurance plans, which is on top of 2017’s 90 percent cut in advertising programs, but Cronen said this has not affected Oregon’s promotion of enrollment on HealthCare.gov as it has in other states.

“Unlike most states that use HealthCare.gov, we have Oregon-based, Oregon-funded, by Oregonians, for Oregonians outreach teams that do boots-on-the-ground, person-to-person outreach all around the state in addition to our own paid media advertising campaign that we operate here at the Oregon Health Insurance Marketplace,” she said.

OHIM used a $1.8 million budget in 2017 from the state to purchase billboard advertisements, broadcast ads and digital ads. This was in addition to the grants they gave to community partners, such as NEON. Cronen said her department is “acutely aware” of the vast diversity of the state and that what works in Portland may not work in Eastern Oregon.

“It’s one reason the community partner program is so valuable,” Cronen said. “We are able to offer competitive grants to organizations to do what they do best in their communities: offering free, local assistance in getting enrolled and coming up with the outreach ideas, strategies and tactics they know will be effective.”

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer

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