MISSOULA — With open enrollment set to begin in the health insurance marketplace, Missoula County on Wednesday hosted a virtual press conference aimed at uninsured consumers, which are growing in number as a result of the pandemic.
The enrollment deadline of Dec. 15 is approaching, although residents are still able to access free, local enrollment assistance over the next two weeks. Health officials on Wednesday said a growing number of Montanans remain uninsured due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the job losses associated with it.
Currently, the uninsured rate in Montana hovers at nearly 11%. And according to the Montana Healthcare Foundation, just 5% of individuals are buying plans on the individual market, which is a relatively small percentage compared to other methods Montanans use to get coverage.
But Olivia Riutta, the outreach and engagement manager at Montana Primary Care, said the marketplace remains an important tool for those seeking health insurance.
“It’s a really essential tool for people who don’t have the option to get employer-sponsored coverage, or don’t qualify for Medicaid,” she said. “It’s especially important this year as so many people’s employer-sponsored coverage has been potentially impacted by COVID.”
Healthcare providers across the state, such as Cover Montana, have received grant funding from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to ensure that community members can enroll in this service.
Josh Slotnick, chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, echoed Riutta’s point and noted the rapidly approaching deadline.
“We are in a critical time right now. We want to make sure that everyone who needs health insurance gets health insurance,” Slotnick said. “Due to the pandemic, so many people lost their jobs.”
For Slotnick, those who don’t currently have health insurance should not feel alone, as the marketplace is there to aid those who are uninsured. Slotnick said the marketplace is more affordable than most people probably expect.
“Nine out of 10 Montanans qualify for a tax credit, which reduces how much you pay in total,” he said. “And nearly a third of Montanans who apply qualify for a cost-share reduction. So that’s money, right away, reduced from how much you have to pay.”
For those worried about navigating the insurance process, eligibility specialists can offer support. For example, Laura Bird works as an eligibility specialist for the All Nations Health Center.
She assists individuals in choosing the healthcare option that is best for them based on factors such as household size and income and offers various assistance for those navigating the application process.
“I answer questions. I explain the basics of coverage and walk them through the application. I help provide the information so they can pick a plan that works best for them,” Bird said.
She stressed that the marketplace truly can be an affordable option for those that are in need and uninsured.
“The good news is that most Montanans who enroll in coverage through the health insurance marketplace qualify for financial help,” she said. “Around 89%, almost nine out of 10 Montanans, qualify for financial help to make their monthly premium more affordable.”
As the number of people who are uninsured in Montana has jumped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, much is still unknown about what the insured numbers might look like post-pandemic or next year.
Slotnick used the virtual press conference as a PSA to make his message clear that options are available.
“If you don’t qualify for a federal program and you don’t get health insurance from your employer, you can still get health insurance,” he said. “You have until December 15th. Jump on it and roll.”