The number of Mainers enrolling in the federal health insurance marketplace surged by more than 70 percent in the weeks before the deadline to sign up, pushing the state’s total to 44,258 in the program’s first enrollment period, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The total exceeded projections by the Maine Health Access Foundation, which coordinated the statewide enrollment campaign and expected 37,000 enrollees in the first six months. “This exceeded our wildest expectations,” said Wendy Wolf, the foundation’s president.
The percentage of young people who signed up also exceeded analysts’ expectations, boding well for keeping overall insurance costs down.
The health insurance marketplace, created under the Affordable Care Act, is where consumers – many of them working poor or people who are self-employed – can compare plans and apply for subsidized insurance.
Nationally, 8 million people signed up for coverage, exceeding projections of 6 million to 7 million. President Obama announced the national total two weeks ago, but the state-by-state figures were not released until Thursday.
The enrollment period started Oct. 1 and the official deadline was March 31, but people who had started the process by then were given until mid-April to finish applications.
As of the end of February, 25,412 people in Maine had enrolled.
Eileen Whynot, 58, of Gorham, who bought insurance through the marketplace in January, said the benefits kept her calm during a difficult period. She is recovering from a ski accident April 4 that fractured her pelvis and left hip.
“Whoa, am I lucky,” Whynot said after finishing a grueling in-home physical therapy session. “I never had to worry about finances through all of this.”
Whynot’s total bill for surgery, hospital and rehabilitation stays, physical therapy, medications and other costs: $500. That’s the maximum out-of-pocket cost permitted under her plan.
If she had had the same ski accident last year, Whynot said, she would have had to pay $6,000, the out-of-pocket maximum on her previous insurance plan. She had insurance through her boyfriend’s employer, she said, and it was expensive.
Whynot is an unemployed communications professional who has some income from rental property. She wouldn’t disclose her annual income, but said it isn’t much over the $11,490 threshold to qualify for the health insurance marketplace.
With a $6,000 medical bill, “I would have spent hours and hours stressing and worrying about whether we could afford the bills,” Whynot said.
People whose income is just above the threshold qualify for substantial subsidies that limit premiums and out-of-pocket costs. As a person’s income climbs, the subsidies become less. Subsidies are not available to people who earn more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, about $47,000 for a single person.
Whynot said her monthly premium is less than $3, compared with $250 per month for her previous plan.
Health care advocates say the enrollment numbers show a strong demand for affordable health insurance. The roll-out of the marketplace went poorly, as website glitches on HealthCare.gov prevented people from enrolling in the first few months.
Once people were confident in the website, Wolf said, the desire for affordable health coverage won the day. Sign-ups swelled after the site was fixed, especially in the weeks before enrollment closed on March 31.
“Any way you carve this up, it’s good news,” said Mitchell Stein, an independent health policy expert from Cumberland.
Mirroring a national trend, a higher proportion of last-minute enrollees in Maine were age 18 to 34. “Young people were better at procrastinating,” Stein said.
Enrollees from that age group increased from 19 percent of the total at the end of February to 22 percent for the final report, surpassing the Maine Health Access Foundation’s goal of 20 percent.
Much of the foundation’s $2.5 million in advertising since December focused on persuading young people to sign up for health insurance. Young people tend to use the health care system less, so having more of them in the insurance pool helps control costs, experts say.
Nationally, 28 percent of the people who selected plans were in the 18-to-34 age group. Because Maine’s median age, at 43.5, is the oldest in the nation, its percentage of young people in the insurance pool was expected to be lower.
Whynot said she often thinks back to her ski accident on April 4, when she fell 20 feet over a ridge at Sunday River in Newry. She said the reasonable medical bills allow her to focus her mental energy on getting better.
“My legs were like a rag doll,” said Whynot, who expects to be walking in a few weeks. “I am lucky to be alive.”
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: