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Maryland Health Benefit Exchange hosts a free fitness session to raise awareness on Maryland’s open enrollment period for individual private health insurance on Nov. 1, 2023. Photo by Danielle J. Brown.

Wednesday marked the start of open enrollment for Marylanders looking for different health insurance coverage options. To help spread awareness of the 74-day enrollment period, the Maryland Health Benefits Exchange arranged a free fitness bootcamp class, pilates instruction and a yoga stretch session Wednesday evening overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

“It’s our kick-off to a six-week period of time where Marylanders can get health insurance for 2024 plan year,” said Michele Eberle, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. “And we wanted to emphasize how important being healthy is and tie that to how getting health insurance plan can really help you.”

The exchange runs the state marketplace for private insurance, so that Maryland residents who do not have insurance through an employer or do not use a federal health insurance, such as Medicaid or Medicare, can more easily look at their health care options.

Open enrollment for individual private plans began the morning of Nov. 1 and will continue until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2024. Those who are enrolled before the end of December will have coverage as of Jan. 1, 2024. Those who enroll in January will have coverage as of Feb. 1, 2024.

The open enrollment period also offers a new health insurance provider, Aetna, which will join CareFirst, Kaiser Permanente, and UnitedHealthcare.

“Now, we have four insurance carriers that we can offer,” Eberle said. “They’re all a little bit different, but they all have to cover required benefits that we require of them. But what’s really good about Aetna coming into the marketplace is that we now have three insurance carriers that are statewide. It’s just more choice.”

The enrollment event comes at a time when thousands of Marylanders are being disenrolled each month from Medicaid, which is aimed at low-income households, following the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Those disenrolled from Medicaid because they now earn too much to qualify are encouraged to find a health plan through the state insurance marketplace to avoid a lapse in coverage.

During the Wednesday event, insurance navigators at HealthCare Access Maryland were available to help schedule enrollment appointments and provide information about how to use the state marketplace to find affordable health care coverage.

Joe Poindexter, senior director of health insurance programs at HealthCare Access Maryland, said navigators work with people to sort through available health care options so that they don’t have to “navigate the system alone,” Poindexter said.

He said they often use community events to help draw in potential clients.

“This year we have a lot of community resources. We have like 25 vendors,” Poindexter said. “We offer free haircuts. We’re offering nail techs. We provide free services. We try to bring things to draw people in. It gives people reason to come.”

“We found that, in the past, when we just focus on enrollment, we didn’t have a high turnout,” he added. “So, we want to do things so that people come, so we figured we could do community resources that draw people in and then they can get enrolled too.”

According to the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, based on 2021 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, some areas in Maryland have a higher percentage of uninsured residents, including Baltimore, where the fitness event was held.

Caroline County had the highest rate of uninsured residents with 9.1%. Other places with high proportions of uninsured residents were Wicomico (8.7%), Dorchester (8.6%), Kent (8.5%), Worcester (7.6%) Talbot (7.6%) and Garrett (7.4%) counties, and Baltimore (6.9%).

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange noted that young Marylanders are more willing to go without health insurance than older populations, according to their market research, with one in five young Marylanders willing to go without health insurance for more than six months.

“That is the hardest population to get. Cause when you’re young – one: your finances are limited. Two: you feel healthy,” Eberle said Wednesday. “So when you’re picking and choosing where to put your money, health insurance may not be at the top of the list.”

There’s a wide range of reasons on why some young Marylanders go without coverage, according to the exchange, including thinking that they can’t afford coverage or thinking they won’t qualify, finding it too difficult or confusing to apply for coverage, or simply not knowing what options are available for them.

During the 2023 Legislative Session, the Maryland Legislature extended a pilot program to provide a youth-focused subsidy to help more young people afford health insurance.

Eberle urges younger Marylanders look into their options for health coverage to ensure that they will have coverage in case of an emergency.

“You don’t know when you’re going to have a bike accident, when you’re going to have an unintended pregnancy – all those things where you think, ‘well, that’s not going to happen to me.’ But you want to be covered if it does,” she said.

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