Consumers who want to enroll in Obamacare for 2018 will have less help and a shorter time to do it.
The enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act will be cut in half to 45 days from November 1 to December 15. The Trump administration also cut ties with two companies that helped Floridians sign up for insurance -- Cognosante in South Florida and CSRA in the Tampa Bay area.
The companies brought assistance into libraries, businesses and urban neighborhoods in 18 cities around the country, meaning shoppers on the insurance exchanges will have fewer places to turn for help signing up for coverage.
The loss of the groups will be felt during enrollment, said Melanie Hall, executive director of the Tampa Bay-based Family Healthcare Foundation.
CSRA would open a storefront in Hillsborough County about a month before enrollment began and stay through the end.
“So it provided another referral source that we could send consumers to particularly on the weekends,” Hall said. “We will definitely miss their services here in Hillsborough County”
The contracts awarded to Cognosante and CSRA in 2013 were never meant to be long term, said Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Jane Norris in an email.
"These contracts were intended to help CMS provide temporary, in-person enrollment support during the early years" of the exchanges, Norris said. Other federally funded help with enrollment will continue, she said, including a year-round call center and grant-funded navigator programs. The existing program is "robust" and "we have the on-the-ground resources necessary" in key cities, Norris said.
The Family Healthcare Foundation, which helps people enroll in health insurance and find health care, will hire more navigators during enrollment to help cover the loss, Hall said. The added staff will work evening and weekend shifts, she said.
“Were going to make sure we’re available when it’s convenient for consumers to go through the application process with someone that can help them find something that is affordable and find the services they need,” Hall said.
Since most consumers enroll before the Dec. 15 deadline, the shorter period shouldn’t result in a big drop in enrollment, she said.
Still, Hall and others are trying to get the word out so people know they don’t have as much time.
The Tampa Bay area has always benefited from having multiple insurers in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces and this year is no different, Hall said.
The competition has given consumers choices and kept prices relatively low.
Even though premiums have increased every year, tax credits have also gone up, meaning the amount most consumers pay doesn’t fluctuate too much. As a result, enrollment in the Tampa Bay area has grown each year, Hall said.
But this year there is added uncertainty. The Trump administration could further destabilize the marketplaces where people shop for coverage by not promoting them or not enforcing the mandate compelling people to get coverage. The administration has already threatened to withhold payments to insurers to help people afford care, which would prompt insurers to sharply increase prices.
"There's a clear pattern of the administration trying to undermine and sabotage the Affordable Care Act," said Elizabeth Hagan, associate director of coverage initiatives for the liberal advocacy group Families USA. "It's not letting the law fail, it's making the law fail."
Hall said the uncertainty is causing some concern among consumers.
“There is certainly some anxiety and most of that comes from the fact that there is no reassurance coming directly from the current administration or even from the insurance companies themselves,” she said. “So I think there is some anxiety at the moment about what the unknown is.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.