“If you don’t have coverage, call us.” – Jane Straight, Director of Income/Health Impact for United Way of Anchorage
That’s the simple message we’d like to get out during the Affordable Care Act open enrollment period for 2021 that began November 1 and runs through December 15.
Our mission at United Way is that we work together to improve the health, education, and financial stability of every person in our community. Each of these is vital to the other. All three have suffered in the pandemic. Thousands of Alaskans have lost their health insurance with their livelihoods in the pandemic recession; our year-round navigator reports a 30 percent increase in calls outside the enrollment period. The prospect of paying medical bills without insurance help puts financial stability at high risk, especially for those already living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic.
That’s why Jane’s message above is so important. Too often, we’ve found that people don’t think they can afford or qualify for one of the ACA insurance plans. Too often, they’re mistaken, and miss out on valuable, affordable coverage for themselves and their families. This year, for example, Alaska rates for 2021 coverage are declining by an average of 7 percent.
It is also important because literature leaves little doubt that access to coverage is associated with an array of beneficial effects: having a regular doctor; receiving timely preventive care services; better management of chronic health conditions; improved health status, particularly among people with chronic health problems; greater workforce participation; and longer life expectancy.
Access to those benefits is why for the eighth straight year, our trained health care navigator is providing free, confidential expertise and guidance to the right health insurance plan by phone and in one-on-one sessions. In this season of COVID-19, we can’t do in-person meetings as we did before. But like everyone else, we’ve gotten a little more tech savvy these past few months and have pivoted to online sessions by appointment five days a week.
We recommend your first attempt at setting up an appointment to go through email@example.com as our Alaska 2-1-1 staff has been swamped with calls about ACA, Covid-19, rent assistance etc. But if you do call 2-1-1 (1-800-478-2221 outside of Anchorage), we will put you in contact with a health care navigator. That 2-1-1 call can also connect people to translation services in more than 170 languages.
The United Way navigators have been at this work from the beginning of the Affordable Care Act and are the local experts on how to help. They can clear up confusion over multiple plans, provide up to date information on policy changes and pricing, demystify the process and help people steer clear of mistakes they may not even realize they’re making.
Navigators can also help consumers learn about discounts based on income and tax credits that help make coverage more affordable or find out if they qualify for Medicaid. Nationally in 2019, more than 80 percent of ACA health insurance shoppers qualified for financial assistance. The Navigator won’t endorse a specific plan, but will lay out clear, accurate information and comparisons.
“When you feel like you’ve made a well-informed choice, you feel better about the decision,” Straight said.
Becky Hallstrom,.our veteran navigator who has demystified the process for thousands of people, provides two recent examples:
- A woman’s job with the Census Bureau had just ended. She wanted to know if she should accept COBRA coverage – an extension of job insurance in which the entire cost is borne by the former employee. She had too much income to qualify for an advanced premium tax credit under the Affordable Care Act, so she thought COBRA at $1500 a month was her only option. She didn’t realize that Medicaid considers her income by the month, and that as an unemployment recipient, she qualified. So, she’ll be covered by Medicaid while she continues to look for work.
- A husband was just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). He and his wife thought that because he was self-employed, they were ineligible for coverage under the ACA. But the ACA considers only taxable income in its eligibility requirements, so only their profit was used to calculate their premium under the plan. What that means is that beginning in January, they’ll have his care covered for $54 a month – a blessing of one enormous worry off their backs as they confront MS.
We’re so grateful to our partners who help our navigators reach so many Alaskans – Providence Alaska Medical Center, where we’ve long had a navigator office, and the Anchorage Public Libraries.
Loussac Library has long been a one-on-one meeting location during open enrollments. Since the pandemic precludes that, we’re teaming with the library to present Facebook sessions at 2 p.m. every Tuesday during open enrollment to help people understand different parts of the Affordable Care Act and their options.
In seven years of partnerships, United Way navigators have provided help to 22,800 Alaskans, including 6,700 with their enrollment in ACA plans. This is what we mean by LIVE UNITED – we accomplish so much more together than any of us can alone.
Our partners include many of you reading this. Your continued support enables us to build and sustain the relationships, the collaborations that make for long-range change and lasting improvements in people’s lives – like access to affordable health care for a woman out of work and a couple staring down a crippling disease. The same support sustains our swift response to immediate needs like those confronting us all in the pandemic.
Both metrics and navigators testify, from spreadsheets and from the heart, to the value of what you contribute. It’s in the staying power of these partnerships that we’ll come through the pandemic – and be even more resolved in our mission together.