- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nearly 43,000 Nebraskans signed up for health insurance in the six months since the federal marketplace began accepting applicants, according to a federal report released Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 42,975 Nebraskans enrolled between Oct. 1 and March 31. More than 40 percent signed up during a last-minute surge in March, the final month of the first national enrollment period.

Although the figures don’t show how many of those actually paid their first month’s premium, the final step in the process, Nebraska still beat the federal government’s projection that 40,000 people would enroll. Results varied across the nation, with 20 states falling below the estimates.

Of those who successfully enrolled in Nebraska, 87 percent qualified for federal assistance to help pay for their plans. More than 40 percent of the new enrollees were younger than 35. Supporters of the health care law celebrated Nebraska’s final numbers.

“It shows that there is definitely a need for this legislation,” said state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, of Omaha. “It also puts pressure on those politicians who are trying to repeal it - trying to take health care away from 43,000 Nebraskans who have said, ‘We want this coverage.’”

Nebraska is among 36 states relying on the federal website to enroll residents in the health marketplace, which is part of the federal health care law. Nationally, more than 8 million people signed up by the end of the first national enrollment period. That includes 5.4 million who signed up through the federal marketplace. Another 2.6 million enrolled through state-run marketplaces.

The March enrollment boom matched what many Nebraska health care “navigators” saw in the final days before the deadline, said Amber Hansen, executive director of Community Action of Nebraska. The nonprofit with offices throughout the state was one of two groups that received federal grants to hire and train the specialists who walked people through the sign-up process.

“The day before the deadline, the phones were just ringing off the hook,” Hansen said.

Hansen said the enrollment effort suffered at the beginning because of problems with the federal website, healthcare.gov. Many residents also had misconceptions about the law, believing that the process would end up more expensive and complicated than it was. Nonprofit groups and supportive elected officials mounted a campaign to publicize the enrollment effort through visits to Nebraska libraries, health fairs and college campuses.

Hansen said the enrollment process led many people to realize that they fall into the so-called Medicaid coverage gap, because their incomes are too high to qualify for regular Medicaid but too low to receive federal assistance. Opponents in the Legislature blocked a bill this year that would have extended Medicaid coverage to an estimated 54,000 Nebraskans in 2015.

The federal health care law allows Americans to choose a plan through government-based marketplaces where insurers have to offer basic coverage.

Jen Rae Wang, a spokeswoman for Gov. Dave Heineman, said the Obama administration has yet to release how many people have actually completed the process by paying their first month’s premium. And she said there are cases in Nebraska in which people’s premiums have increased because of the health care law’s requirements.

“The governor has certainly said in the past that Obamacare is bad for America and bad for Nebraska,” Wang said.



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