What you need to know ahead of the open enrollment deadline

The phone hasn’t stopped ringing at the Highland Park offices of New Jersey Citizen Action. It’s crunch time for Health Care Program Director Maura Collinsgru and her team. The have a little more than two days to reach as many New Jersey residents as they can before open enrollment period for coverage under the Affordable Care Act closes.

“Many people are finding that they are saving money this year — some as much as a few hundred dollars per month,” Collinsgru said.

According to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, also known as CMS, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 8 a little more than 118,000 New Jersey residents selected plans through healthcare.gov, not including those who re-enrolled. That’s a decrease of nearly 15 percent from the same open enrollment period last year when almost 139,000 signed up.

It’s a decrease that could have been caused by alterations made to the healthcare.gov website just a few weeks after the start of the open enrollment period. A side-by-side comparison shows the original site with five options listed. On the altered version, two of the options — enroll by phone and enroll by mail — have been removed. As a result consumers end up driven to apply for health care by bypassing healthcare.gov. It’s a seemingly small, but significant change, says Rachel Bergman of The Sunlight Foundation.

“The user experience will be different notably because when consumers use an agent or broker, they don’t have to be provided the same options they’ll receive on healthcare.gov on the market place,” said Bergman.

It’s a move that Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone says is part of President Donald Trump’s efforts to deter people from signing up for health care.

“Whether it’s cutting back on funding for open enrollment so people don’t hear about it, or it’s sabotaging the website by taking out information, or steering links toward private insurance that’s junk,” Pallone said.

A CMS spokesperson said that the changes are about customer service, saying in a statement, “… Our top priority is to provide a seamless consumer experience and ensure healthcare.gov consumers have the resources to select a health plan that best fits their individual needs.”

“In these final two days, if you are attempting to enroll and you are pushing up against the deadline, the only place you will be able to leave your name and contact information is at healthcare.gov,” Collinsgru said.

Thursday afternoon, HHS updated the healthcare.gov website to include all the options, including enrolling by mail and by phone. Either way, you need to hurry.