The Access Health CT storefront in New Britain shortly after 10 a.m. Most of those in the waiting area were exchange staff.
The Access Health CT storefront in New Britain. (File photo) Arielle Levin Becker /
The Access Health CT storefront in New Britain shortly after 10 a.m. Most of those in the waiting area were exchange staff.
The Access Health CT storefront in New Britain shortly after 10 a.m. Most of those in the waiting area were exchange staff. Arielle Levin Becker /

New Britain – Tuesday was a big deadline for signing up for health insurance coverage. But one of the key sign-up locations wasn’t bustling when Bhargav Patel stopped by in the morning to make sure his son would be able to keep his insurance.

A few brokers and enrollment specialists were helping people at the storefront run by Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance exchange. It was busier than usual – the store got 120 visitors Monday and was expecting 150 Tuesday, up from the daily average of 70 to 80 last week – but hardly the sort of crowd or lengthy wait that marked the same deadline two years ago, the first year of signups under Obamacare. Patel – who had already ensured that he and his wife would maintain their coverage but needed to sort out an issue with his son’s – waited just a couple minutes before a staffer came to take his name and information.

Access Health hasn’t released enrollment figures yet, so it’s not clear what the calmer storefront activity means for the sign-up tally. But exchange officials said they weren’t surprised by the lack of a major deadline rush Tuesday, the final day for people to sign up to get private insurance coverage that takes effect Jan. 1. (The open enrollment period runs through Jan. 31, but those who sign up after Dec. 15 won’t get covered until Feb. 1 at the earliest.)

Most of the exchange’s approximately 95,500 current customers were eligible to be automatically renewed, meaning they would maintain their coverage even if they took no action during the open enrollment period, as long as they continue paying their premiums. And that, Access Health CEO Jim Wadleigh said, means that “all hell doesn’t have to break loose” on deadlines.

Darwin Jurado
Darwin Jurado Arielle Levin Becker /

“I believe a lot of our consumers, they already auto-enrolled, so they don’t have to come here,” storefront manager Darwin Jurado said. Nonetheless, he planned to keep the storefront open and staffed until midnight – if traffic warranted – for those racing the clock.

Exchange officials have set a goal of having 105,000 to 115,000 people signed up by the end of the open enrollment period, in the same range as the previous period, when just over 110,000 people signed up.

As many as 60,525 households – which can include more than one customer – were eligible to be automatically renewed. And more than 5,400 new customers signed up for insurance in the first couple weeks of the enrollment period. The exchange hasn’t said how many have signed up since then.

But about 10,000 current customers who weren’t eligible to be automatically renewed still hadn’t signed up for 2016 coverage, Wadleigh said. Another 2,200 customers who receive federal tax credits to discount their premiums won’t be eligible for that financial aid starting in January because they didn’t file tax returns as required – meaning they could face a significant jump in price when they get their next insurance bill.

Related: The Mirror’s Guide to health care in Connecticut

This is a picture of Jim Wadleigh
Jim Wadleigh Arielle Levin Becker /

Traffic on the exchange’s website rose Monday and Tuesday compared to earlier weeks during the sign-up period, but was lower than last year, Wadleigh said.

And while enrollment tallies were a major indicator used by the health law’s boosters and critics in the first two years, Wadleigh said the focus is increasingly on measures beyond the number of people who sign up.

“It’s not about enrollment, it’s more than that,” he said. “How do we get our customers signed up for family doctors, doing their well-visits?”

A survey conducted in mid-2015 found that 36 percent of people who bought plans through the exchange hadn’t used their coverage, and 28 percent didn’t have a primary care physician. The rates were much higher among African-Americans and Hispanics.

Other priorities include ensuring that the exchange is offering what Wadleigh described as the right plans – that is, those that not only cover but encourage preventive care and wellness, and plans that will appeal to the customer base.

More than half of the exchange’s customers qualify for both tax credits to discount their premiums and additional federal assistance to reduce their out-of-pocket costs for getting care – subsidies available only to those earning below 250 percent of the poverty level.

“That means that half our customers are probably one step above Medicaid, which means the working poor,” Wadleigh said. “What do we need to do to help them?”

At the same time, about a quarter of customers have incomes too high to qualify for any federal assistance. Officials hope to grow that part of the business, which Wadleigh said would give the exchange more leverage with insurers.

The penalty for not having coverage will rise in 2016 to either 2.5 percent of household income or $695 per person in the household ($347.50 for those under 18) – whichever is higher.

And Wadleigh said the exchange will be stricter next year about allowing people to sign up outside the open enrollment period; not doing so can lead to higher premiums, he said, if healthy people stop paying premiums and then sign up again only when they need medical care.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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