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Exchange enrollment brisk in Georgia
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More than 180,000 people in Georgia selected plans through the health insurance exchange in the first month of open enrollment, according to a federal report released Tuesday.

Of the 187,654 Georgians picking plans for 2015, roughly 55 percent of them, or about 103,000, were signing up for the first time. The rest had previously gotten coverage for 2014, which was Year One of the Affordable Care Act exchange.

Georgia's total is the fourth-highest among the 37 states that have an exchange run by the federal government. Only Florida, Texas and North Carolina have enrollment totals exceeding Georgia's, and Florida and Texas are far more heavily populated than the Peach State. (Georgia and North Carolina are roughly equivalent in population.)

The report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is the first detailed look at state-by-state enrollment so far in the exchange for 2015.

The enrollment figures as of Dec. 15 do not reflect the still-undetermined number of Georgians who were automatically re-enrolled in the same health plans they currently have.

Georgia's total number of enrollees during the first open enrollment was 316,543.

"It appears we're on track to exceed enrollment estimates,'' Bill Custer, a health insurance expert at Georgia State University, said Tuesday.

Custer told Georgia Health News that he predicts enrollment will exceed 400,000 in Georgia during this open enrollment period, which ends Feb. 15.

People who signed up by Dec. 15 were able to have their 2015 coverage take effect on New Year's Day.

Nationwide, more than 4 million people signed up for the first time or re-enrolled in coverage for 2015 during the first month of open enrollment. That includes more than 3.4 million people who selected a plan in the 37 states using the federal healthcare.gov exchange, and more than 600,000 consumers who selected plans in the states that are operating their own exchanges.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement Tuesday that "interest in the marketplace has been strong during the first month of open enrollment. We still have a ways to go and a lot of work to do before February 15, but this is an encouraging start."

Almost 90 percent of Georgians picking a health plan were eligible for a subsidy that would lower their monthly premiums.

In addition, 22,000 people in Georgia, mostly children, were determined to be eligible already for Medicaid or PeachCare coverage.

Custer said the Health and Human Services report also shows that "lots of people are using the healthcare.gov website, whether they're buying or not. That indicates a more competitive health care marketplace."

Many people who remain without health insurance in 2015 will be subject to increased penalties for not obtaining health coverage. That will be a factor in some people's decision to enroll in a health plan, Custer said. The subsidies or discounts are a stronger motivating factor, he added.

Current exchange customers who have been automatically re-enrolled can still make plan changes through Feb. 15, he noted.

"Many of them can do better if they shop around'' on the exchange and not just stick with the old plan, Custer said.

Cindy Zeldin of the consumer group Georgians for a Healthy Future said Tuesday that "these strong enrollment numbers show that the demand for affordable health coverage in Georgia is finally being met."

She added that she was encouraged by the number of people enrolling in the exchange for the first time.

"Still, many uninsured Georgians may not know that there are options out there that can meet their health-care needs and their budget,'' Zeldin added. "We encourage Georgians to connect with a health insurance navigator to explore their options well before the Feb. 15 deadline."

Navigators are counselors with special training in the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Other counselors, as well as insurance agents, can provide advice to consumers about their coverage decisions.