On next Wednesday, the Maryland Health Connection — the state-run health exchange — will be open for business.
Consumers can already access the website (Marylandhealthconnection.gov) to browse plans, but the first day to actually input personal data and purchase coverage is Nov. 19.
Over the next few days, there will be other ways to engage with health officials and get started on the process of buying insurance. An enrollment fair is being held Saturday at Corkran Middle School in Glen Burnie from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. where trained support staff will help explain various options and help people compare plans.
Then on Sunday, the Consumer Support Center will start accepting phone calls from people who want to enroll that way. The number to call 855-642-8572.
On Nov. 17, Marylanders can enroll in-person at one of the consumer-assistance organizations located throughout the state that contract with the health department to help people enroll. On Nov. 18, local health departments will also be able to help people enroll in person.
Here are some more tidbits to keep in mind if you’re preparing for open enrollment or thinking about switching plans.
• Open enrollment doesn’t last forever. Marylanders have until Feb. 15 to sign up for coverage. But, if you are eligible for federal tax credits, you must enroll by Dec. 18 to retain that financial assistance for next year.
• Medicaid enrollment, however, is year-round. If you qualify for the state Medicaid program, you are not constrained by the open enrollment period. Dental insurance can also be bought year-round through the exchange.
• Even if you bought insurance through the exchange last year on the original website — which was given a total facelift over the past several months — you must sign on to the site again. For one thing, if you’re receiving financial assistance, you must re-enroll to ensure you keep that assistance. And even if you’re not eligible for tax credits, it’s possible that the plan you had last year was changed or is no longer available. Or, you might be able to find a better deal this year.
• In 2015, there are 57 different plans being offered by five insurance carriers: CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield; Cigna; Evergreen Health; Kaiser Permanente and United Healthcare (which did not participate in Maryland’s exchange for 2014). All plans (except for so-called “catastrophic” plans) offer the same “essential benefits” and cover preventive services for free, regardless of pre-existing conditions. Plans are divided into tiers based on how the consumer and the insurance company share the costs of care. In a Bronze plan, for example, the consumer can expect to pay about 40 percent of costs. In a platinum plan, consumers pay only 10 percent of costs, on average. But the premiums will be higher for higher-tier plans.
• Catastrophic plans are available for people under age 30, or people of any age who received a hardship exemption from having to buy other coverage, due to low income. On the Maryland exchange, catastrophic policies, which will have lower premiums, cover three primary care visits per year at no cost. However, you cannot receive tax credits toward the premiums of a catastrophic plan.
• Small business owners can also log onto the exchange to see their options for health insurance, though it’s not required for businesses with 50 or fewer employees to provide coverage.