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Affordable Care Act Enrollment Deadline Approaches As Thousands Of Arizonans Lose Insurance Due To Pandemic

MARK BRODIE: Today is the deadline to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. This has been perhaps the most significant enrollment period since the start of the ACA, as the state and country continue to fight COVID-19 and millions are out of work. Arizonans have had more choices than ever in recent years, and that has likely come in handy as the pandemic forced thousands here out of work and out of their employer-sanctioned health — sponsored health plans. Jim Hammond is the publisher of the Hertel Report, a news and data site that tracks Arizona's health care industry. He joins us now to talk more about all this. Hi, Jim.

JIM HAMMOND: Good morning, everyone.

BRODIE: So how has the pandemic impacted ACA enrollment in Arizona this year?

HAMMOND: Well, it's too early to tell exactly how the pandemic has impacted enrollment, but enrollment is not super high. You know, we expected maybe that we would get a lot of folks to enroll, but it's not super high. I think there's a communication lapse here where people don't really understand what their options are and how they can get some assistance in buying health insurance.

BRODIE: Is it somewhat surprising, even with that communication gap, that given the number of people who are out of work, unfortunately, and don't have access to employer-sponsored healthcare, that enrollment isn't higher now?

HAMMOND: Yeah, I'm a little surprised too. You know, the Trump administration did pull funding for communication. So it has not been a priority of the federal government to increase awareness about what the Affordable Care Act means and how people can actually get help. So there's an organization in Arizona called coveraz.org that's committed to this. And so if folks are interested in learning more about how they can get some assistance in buying health insurance, I encourage them to go to coveraz.org or go directly to healthcare.gov. And I have to, I have to correct you — the open enrollment closes on Dec. 15, so folks have another week to go out and do some research and put their information into healthcare.gov and to see if there is some assistance for them to buy insurance.

BRODIE: OK, great. So another week or so than what we had initially said. So I want to go back to something that you had talked about earlier — the fact that enrollment isn't up maybe as much as we thought it would be. And given the state of the economy and the workforce, does that just mean that Arizona has more uninsured residents now than maybe we've had in the past?

HAMMOND: Yes, yes, that is a big problem, we've kind of slid backwards, you know, much of the country has slid backwards a little bit over the last three years and uninsured numbers are up a little bit. In Arizona, the 2019 census estimated that there were over 800,000 Arizonans that were uninsured. And so that number could be higher than that now — I would, I would guess that we probably have a million uninsured in Arizona now. And they also guessed that 60% of those are below 200% of federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 a year for a single person and $52,000 for a family of four. So we're talking about, you know, low-income folks that we've probably got a half a million of those folks that would qualify for free or nearly no-cost health insurance.

BRODIE: What kind of strain does that put on the healthcare system, especially hospitals in Arizona, given what they are already dealing with, with COVID-19?

HAMMOND: Yeah, when we, when hospitals talk about their, their income disparity. We call that the payer mix. And, you know, oftentimes you hear hospitals complaining about Medicaid, that it doesn't cover their cost. But hospitals would much rather have people on Medicaid than uninsured completely because uninsured folks, especially those folks below those levels I talked about, they're not going to pay their hospital bill probably at all. So hospitals are definitely encouraging folks to, to sign up and get insurance because this does impact their bottom line. The more uninsured, the higher number of uncompensated care write-offs hospitals have to make.

BRODIE: Right. All right, we'll have to leave it right there. That is Jim Hammond, publisher of the Hertel Report. It's a news and data site that tracks Arizona's healthcare industry. Jim, thanks for being with us the first time. Thanks for coming back and finishing up the second time. We appreciate it.

HAMMOND: You bet. Thank you. Have a great day, everyone.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.