Health insurance deadline nears

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As Friday's closing of the open enrollment period approaches, residents interested in obtaining health care coverage are being urged to apply through Vermont Health Connect, or risk going uninsured until 2019.

According to Sue Andrews, executive director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, it can be very difficult to obtain coverage outside of the open enrollment period for the state's version of the federal Affordable Care Act without a "qualifying" event, such as a divorce or job loss.

"The cutoff is very, very strict. It's a federal mandate," she said.

This year's open enrollment period is just six weeks, compared to three months in previous years. Through the Bennington Free Clinic, a part of GBICS, 98 families have been enrolled during the period.

"It's been busy, but it seems to have slowed down a little bit, and I've heard the same thing from the state workers," said Celia Berks, one of the clinic's three state-certified health insurance navigators. "The beginning of this week has been fairly quiet, compared to previous open enrollment periods.

"This is our fourth year, and most people who want insurance have got insurance. Some people who don't have it are now thinking they should get it, and explore their options." Since the inception of the ACA, often referred to as Obamacare, GBICS has enrolled approximately 1,000 families.

Southern Vermont Health Care also helps individuals and families enroll in Vermont Health Connect. During the open enrollment period, Susan Daugherty, SVHC's certified assister, has enrolled 25 to 30 families as part of her work as a financial counselor.

According to Andrews, about 1,000 Bennington County residents remain without health insurance. Of those, two thirds are "largely young men — the 'young invincibles.' Unfortunately, those folks, it takes being sick for them to [apply]. Until you are in dire need of medical care, you think you're — invincible." About a third of the uninsured are undocumented, she said, and cannot obtain coverage through the ACA.

Berks, as a health insurance navigator, is able to help families and individuals examine available plans, but cannot make recommendations. "We do a lot of work assisting people understanding what kind of policies they might want for their family," she said.

Andrews noted that some are discouraged from seeking coverage by the listed monthly premiums, not realizing that their costs might actually be much lower. "I think that even now, several years into this initiative, there are people who don't understand that what you actually pay for your premiums is not necessarily the shelf price," she said. In Vermont, she added, about 60 percent of people enrolled are receiving federal and state subsidies to help with their premiums.

In some cases, she said, the cost of catastrophic coverage is no more than the federal penalty for going uninsured, which is set at $695 per adult per year and $347.50 per child under 18, or 2.5 percent of household income, whichever is greater.

To make an appointment with Berks, call GBICS at 802-447-3700. "If they call and leave a message at the main desk, the receptionist will get in touch with me, and I'll call them back," she said. If there are no available appointments, applicants can call the state directly, at 855-899-9600. Alternatively, they can obtain a paper application from the state Office of Economic Services, and have it time-stamped before the end of Friday.


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