Shortened insurance enrollment period starts Wednesday

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Vermont Health Connect customers seeking to change their insurance plans or buy insurance for any reason will have six weeks to do so, starting Wednesday.

The open enrollment period will run from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 this year. This is the time when commercial insurance customers can change plans or sign up for any reason.

During other times of the year, those customers can change their plans only if they have specific, qualifying life changes such as marriage or loss of a job. Enrollment in Medicaid can happen at any time of the year, according to the Department of Vermont Health Access.

The state's top health care advocate is encouraging people to look at the available plans and either sign up or change plans as early as possible.

"I think it's really important that Vermonters remember that this year's open enrollment is shorter than previous open enrollments," said Mike Fisher, the chief health care advocate at Vermont Legal Aid. "There's only six weeks, and it makes a lot of sense for people to get started as soon as they can."

In previous years the period was twice as long, lasting through the end of January. President Donald Trump's administration shortened the period earlier this year.

Fisher said Vermonters can still get the same subsidies to afford their health insurance as they received in previous years. That includes subsidies that help reduce out-of-pocket costs, called cost-sharing reduction. President Donald Trump has said the federal government will quit funding those subsidies.

Fisher has said in the past that federal law still requires insurance companies to offer the cost-sharing reductions to customers. If the federal government defunds payments to insurance companies, the insurers will take the hit, not the customers, Fisher said.

Premiums are scheduled to go up an average of 9.2 percent for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont plans and 3.5 percent for MVP Health Care plans. The amount Vermonters pay for premiums will be affected by what subsidies they are eligible for this year.

"Many people continue in their existing plan," Fisher said. "It's important that Vermonters know that there have been rate increases that could impact their premiums or the amount of out-of-pocket expenses that they're exposed to."

Sara Teachout, the spokesperson for Blue Cross, said customers who choose to make no changes to their plan can have their existing enrollment preferences carry over. Customers who do not receive subsidies can also sign up directly with Blue Cross or MVP, she said.

"We've been working with (the state) to prepare for open enrollment for months, and we expect it to go smoothly, and we want to continue to make that process easy for people to choose Blue Cross Blue Shield or any other health insurance plan," Teachout said.

Sean Sheehan, the deputy director of enrollment and eligibility for the Department of Vermont Health Access, which runs Vermont Health Connect, encouraged people to use the state's plan comparison tool to see what kind of subsidies they are eligible for before assuming they can't afford health insurance.

"It would be less expensive for most uninsured Vermonters to buy a cheap bronze plan with the subsidy than to pay the fee for not having insurance," Sheehan said. "And of course having the health plan, you get free preventive care out of it. You have that peace of mind."

Additionally, Sheehan said people should not think they can wait until after the holiday season to buy or change their health insurance plans. "They can't this year," Sheehan said. "That's the big thing. If they want to sign up for coverage, be sure to do it by Dec. 15."

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