Sen. Angus King is asking the federal government to give Mainers more time to sign up for Affordable Care Act marketplace insurance because a storm left much of the state without power and internet access during the first week of the enrollment period.

Strong wind and heavy rain hit Maine overnight on Oct. 29, leaving roughly 484,000 homes and businesses without power the next day. Central Maine Power and Emera Maine reduced that number steadily in the following days, but more than 100,000 customers remained without electricity when the ACA open enrollment period began on Nov. 1 and it took more than a week for the utility companies to restore power to the majority of their customers.

The primary way for people to shop for health insurance is on healthcare.gov, the federal marketplace operated by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Without access to electricity and/or communications it is nearly impossible to effectively shop for health insurance,” King, an independent, wrote in a Nov. 7 letter to Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “Clearly, for those trying to enroll in healthcare, the timing of this event is dire. Because of the storm damage many Maine residents will lose nearly one-third of the open enrollment period.”

The open enrollment period runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, which is half as long as it was last year under the Obama Administration when about 80,000 Mainers purchased ACA marketplace insurance.

“I respectfully ask that you consider extending the open enrollment period for the State of Maine to provide those recovering from the storm additional time to shop for health insurance coverage,” King wrote.

King noted that CMS extended open enrollment for states and territories affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

He didn’t ask for a specific extension period in the letter, but in an appearance at the Penobscot Community Health Center in Bangor on Friday, he suggested 10 days.

The Trump administration has undermined the ACA by reducing the enrollment period and cutting back on advertising and outreach efforts, among other measures. President Trump supports repealing and replacing the ACA, but efforts to do so stalled in Congress.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a statement that she’s also been in touch with CMS about extended enrollment and hopes the agency acts quickly.

“Because the open enrollment period is already much shorter than in years past, every day of it counts. I’m very concerned with how the widespread, prolonged loss of power and internet across the state have given Mainers a delayed start,” Pingree said in a statement.

And just days after most everyone in Maine had gotten power back, a cold front packing strong winds blew into the state Friday and knocked out power to more than 25,000 customers at the height of the outages just before noon.

Despite administration attempts to undercut the ACA, signups were strong in the first four days of open enrollment, with more than 600,000 Americans signing up, ahead of the pace in 2016.

There is not yet a state-by-state breakdown of ACA enrollment for 2018.

About 20 million Americans have insurance through either the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace or Medicaid expansion. Maine became the 32nd state to expand Medicaid when voters approved a ballot initiative on Tuesday, although Gov. Paul LePage has indicated he will oppose expansion if it is not fully funded by the Legislature.

Kevin Lewis, president and CEO of Community Health Options, one of the insurers on the ACA marketplace, said that even though interest has seemed strong in Maine in the first week of open enrollment, many people’s lives were disrupted. Also, because the Trump administration stopped funding some of the subsidies for insurers, premiums have changed dramatically. Roughly half of Mainers signing up will be eligible for zero-premium bronze plans, for instance, which was not true for 2017.

“We need to give people time to choose the plan that’s right for them,” Lewis said.

Steve Butterfield, public policy director for Consumers for Affordable Health Care, an Augusta-based health advocacy group, said CMS has the discretion to grant open enrollment extensions.

“I would think having half of the state without power would qualify as a reason for an extension,” Butterfield said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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