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Saturday Event Launches Health Insurance Sign-Ups

Eric Whitney

Saturday was the start of open enrollment for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act for 2015. It’s is the second year most Americans will be required to have health insurance or face a tax penalty.

There were at least two events on Saturday in the MTPR listening area to help people shop for coverage, and investigate whether they qualify for a subsidy to help them afford it. One at the Great Falls Public Library, the other at Missoula County’s fairgrounds.

The Missoula Indian Center sponsored the event in Missoula, but it was open to anyone.

“We know that a lot of people who are eligible for financial help to make this health insurance more affordable don’t realize it. It might be much more affordable than they think it is,” says Amanda Harrow, a navigator who helped people shop for health plans at the event Saturday.

Harrow works for the Montana Primary Care Association, the network of government subsidized clinics for low income people across the state. She says there’s still a lot of misinformation about the health care law out there, and that she more expects experiences like one she had last year.

“There was a woman who was really angry about health care reform, and that she had to have insurance, and just, like, angry about the whole situation,” Harrow recalls, “and she ended up walking out with a plan for about $15 a month, and had really changed her mind.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation says nearly 40% of Montanans who don’t have health insurance qualify for tax credits to help the afford coverage. They’re available to anyone making less than about $47,000 a year. Most Montanans make a lot less than that.

Missoula resident Dana Kingfisher says she thought she’d be able to get help buying health insurance, but wasn’t sure it would be enough to make it affordable.

“Me and my husband sat down and talked about it, we’re like, OK, what could we afford? And we could afford a hundred [dollars] a month, but it would still be tight,”Kingfisher says, “but we still wanted to have health insurance. We’re getting older. My husband has high blood pressure.”

Together, Kingfisher says she and her husband made about $42,000 last year, that puts them in the lower half of earners in Montana. She says she was shocked when her husband calculated how much of a subsidy they’d get, and how much they’d have to pay for insurance each month.

“He was like, yeah, it’s $7. I was like, what? I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it.”

Kingfisher, who is from Browning, says she and her husband have never been able to afford to see a doctor or go to an emergency room in Missoula, that they could only use the Indian Health Service.

“We used to travel all the way to Browning, 200 miles from here, to go to the hospital. Now we’re not driving back to go to the hospital, we’re going back to see family.”

Of course not everyone in Montana likes the health care law. Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke campaigned on repealing the law, and won his seat by a large margin. A spokesperson for his office said he was too busy with Congressional orientation late last week to comment for this story. Zinke told us in a pre-election interview that the health care law makes it harder for Montana businesses to create full time jobs.

On Saturday in Missoula, a lot of people felt like they were walking away with something valuable, and not just the ones who won door prizes in the health law trivia contest.

But Navigator Amanda Harrow says others walked away disappointed.

“Because Montana’s legislature failed to expand Medicaid, and 70,000 Montanans are being denied access to affordable care. There are people that came in here really excited to get health insurance, and we have to tell them that they’re not eligible, and they’re devastated, and it’s just so hard,” Harrow says.

More enrollment events happen next Saturday at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula from 9am to 2pm, and the Great Falls YWCA from 10am to 2pm. There will be two at the Bigfork Chamber of Commerce, on December 5 and December 9 from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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