Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday that nearly 525,000 North Carolinians will receive health insurance in the coming year after signing up for plans through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, well below the number from the previous year.

For 2017, nearly 550,000 people got coverage through the federal program in North Carolina, about 25,000 more than for 2018. However, the new totals were higher than the 513,000 sign-ups for 2016.

Cooper said in a press release that the new, lower numbers could be blamed, at least in part, on a “drastically shorter” sign-up window.

“I am certain that we could have served even more families had the deadline been extended, as I requested,” Cooper said. “People with access to health insurance are able to stay healthier and seek and maintain employment, which is good for our state’s economy.”

President Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services shortened the open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act by six weeks, according to Cooper, setting a deadline of Dec. 15. Cooper had previously sent a letter to DHHS Acting Secretary Eric D. Hargan to request an extension to Dec. 22, but federal officials denied that request.

When Cooper asked for the open enrollment period extension in early December, less than 275,000 people had signed up for insurance through the ACA. At that time, North Carolina had the third-highest number of ACA sign-ups, behind Florida and Texas, according to data compiled by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. North Carolina is among the majority of states, which didn’t create their own insurance exchanges under the ACA, and instead chose to rely upon the federal marketplace and its rules, including open enrollment deadlines.

Cooper praised the NC Navigator Consortium for assistance to individuals and families during the signup period. The consortium includes a pair of Western North Carolina organizations — the Council on Aging of Buncombe County and Pisgah Legal Services.

Jim Barrett, the executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, told Carolina Public Press that his organization used both its paid staff and a team of more than two dozen volunteers to provide education, outreach and counseling services to people interested in receiving insurance through the ACA.

“We ended up counseling more people in that six-week (open enrollment) period than we had in the three-month period in the prior year,” Barrett said. “That was remarkable that we could do that. The challenge, of course, was the compressed time period. Who knows how many people didn’t get the word and didn’t re-up?”

Barrett said Pisgah Legal Services’ counseling sessions ran across the technological spectrum, from people who had very specific questions about how to shop between the plans to people who had little technological expertise and had to be helped even sign up for a password on the system. The complexity of the Affordable Care Act and its associated subsidies, as well as questions about the future of the law itself under the Trump administration, also generated questions from clients.

“The consortium’s 12 health care, social service and legal aid organizations were a tremendous help sharing information about Open Enrollment and navigating people through the sign-up process,” North Carolina DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said in the press release. “Their efforts directly contribute toward a healthier North Carolina.”

Detailed enrollment statistics for 2018 signups aren’t yet available from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But the numbers from 2017 show that in WNC’s four largest counties — Buncombe, Henderson, Burke and Rutherford — more than 35,000 people signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, with 21,532 of those people living in Buncombe County.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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