- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The number of Wyoming residents registered for subsidized health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act continues to climb.

Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Glause said this week that 23,770 people registered for coverage through the federal health insurance marketplace by the Jan. 31 open enrollment deadline. That’s up from about 21,000 who registered last year.

Penalties for people who fail to obtain health insurance have been rising since registration started three years ago and this year hit the maximum level of $695 or 2.5 percent of the person’s income, whichever is highest, Glause said.

It’s not clear how many Wyoming residents will face penalties for not having insurance. Denise Burke, senior policy analyst with the insurance department, said the number of uninsured people varies as people change jobs and move around.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wyoming is the only company offering insurance under the marketplace program in the state. WINhealth, the only other company that offered coverage, closed down at the end of last year, forcing about 13,000 customers to find new coverage.

Wendy Curran, a senior official at Blue Cross & Blue Shield Of Wyoming, said this week that people enrolling in the marketplace program may choose among “gold,” ”silver” or “bronze” plans that offer varying levels of coverage.

A single, 45-year-old non-smoker who lives in Laramie County would face rates for coverage under the silver plan of between $470 and $520 a month, Curran said. Family coverage would be higher.

Tax credits to offset the cost of coverage are available to people below 400 percent of the federal poverty level. A recent report from the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation states that the cost of coverage after tax credits are applied is roughly the same across the country.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated in a release this week that more than 80 percent of people who registered for the program nationwide qualify for a tax credit. In Wyoming, the average tax credit was $454 a month, enough to cover 80 percent of the gross premium. The agency stated the average premium after tax credits was $117 a month.

Federal reports consistently place the cost of health insurance coverage in Wyoming as the highest in the lower 48 states. Medical officials blame the state’s low population density and large land area.

Curran said it’s possible that the repeated refusal of the Wyoming Legislature to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to adults making just over the federal poverty level also plays a role in keeping insurance costs high in Wyoming.

Many lawmakers say they don’t trust federal promises to continue funding if they agreed to expand Medicaid coverage to roughly 20,000 people who would be eligible. Medicaid expansion is an element of the Affordable Care Act.

“We as a company and we as residents of Wyoming are paying a pretty significant amount of federal taxes that were designed to support Medicaid expansion through the ACA. There is a health insurance premium tax that we pay for each policy that we write,” Curran said. “We would like very much to see the money come back and support the health care system in Wyoming. “

Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said his group predicts the cost to hospitals of providing uncompensated care to uninsured people will increase from about $114 million last year to around $117 million this year.

“Within our state, we continue to see high deductibles and high copayments, and I truly believe that’s adding to the amount of uncompensated care we’re delivering without being paid for,” Boley said.

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