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Iowa readies for second health insurance enrollment period

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DES MOINES, Iowa — It's sign-up time again for people looking to buy medical insurance under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The second enrollment period to get benefits started Saturday and runs through Feb. 15. Last year, the enrollment period was stymied by a poorly functioning website and widespread public confusion, and officials have worked to improve the site so it functions better during a crush of visitors.

"This is the time when everybody puts their new products on the line, best prices on the line," said Cliff Gold, chief executive officer of CoOportunity Health, a federally funded nonprofit established to provide health care in Iowa and Nebraska. "There are deals for people. There are opportunities for people."

The health care law was designed to reduce the number of people without health insurance, both through an expansion of Medicaid and with new health care marketplaces where people can shop for private coverage and apply for government aid to pay premiums.

Just over 29,000 people signed up for health insurance in Iowa using the federal insurance marketplace during the first enrollment period. Another roughly 113,000 people are enrolled in Iowa's modified Medicaid expansion, a federally funded program that enrolls some people in a state-run health plan, while others get premiums covered for private insurance.

Iowa Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart said the state hasn't analyzed whether the number of uninsured people has declined, though he noted that Iowa had a relatively high rate of insurance coverage — roughly 90 percent — to being with.

In the second year of enrollment, Gerhart said the state is offering some educational outreach and several medical organizations are helping enroll people. While there were some complaints early on, with people reporting they were not getting their insurance cards or wondering what the plans covered, Gerhart said overall he has heard few concerns.

Trish McMullin, 60, of Des Moines, said she was able to afford insurance for the first time in about seven years thanks to the health care law. She qualified for subsidies to buy a plan and could schedule tests she had been putting off, like a colonoscopy.

"(I feel) relief, peace of mind," said McMullin, who will again apply for insurance for 2015 but doesn't know the specific plan she'll buy or the monthly cost. "There's always that in the back of your head. What catastrophic thing could happen?"

Political conflict over the health overhaul continues. Republicans will control Congress in 2015 and could try to dismantle the law. And the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could threaten the subsidies provided to people in states like Iowa that don't offer a state-run exchange. The White House has pledged to aggressively defend the law.

Iowa is among 37 states using HealthCare.gov as their insurance marketplace. Those who want to see if they qualify for federal subsidies to help pay for coverage must apply through the site. Penalties for people who do not have insurance increase in 2015.

Premiums are expected to go up next year, although many could get help from federal subsidies. According to data from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, premiums will increase by an average of about 11 percent in Iowa and the average monthly premium in 2015 will be $357. CoOportunity and Coventry Health Care will offer plans on the exchange for Iowa. The state's biggest insurer, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, will not.

For people shopping for the first time, or looking to renew or change benefits, Gerhart said they need to closely review their options.

"Make sure you understand what your financial commitment will be. Make sure your doctor is in that network. I would encourage people to confirm that," Gerhart said.

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