Idaho’s demand for Obamacare set a record, defying a national slump

Idaho residents turned out in droves to buy health plans from the Your Health Idaho insurance exchange by the Jan. 31 deadline.
Idaho residents turned out in droves to buy health plans from the Your Health Idaho insurance exchange by the Jan. 31 deadline.

Idaho has resisted the Affordable Care Act at nearly every turn — including the state’s controversial decision to reject a federally funded Medicaid expansion.

But when it came to buying insurance plans that were ushered in by the law, Idaho residents have turned out in droves to Your Health Idaho exchange. For years, the state has topped per-capita enrollment rankings.

This year, demand for Obamacare health plans in Idaho was strong enough to defy a national slump in sign-ups.

When open enrollment closed Jan. 31, about 106,000 people had chosen a health insurance plan from the Idaho exchange, according to Pat Kelly, executive director of Your Health Idaho.

That was about 11,000 more than last year, and about 27 percent were new members.

“We have never seen more interest in Your Health Idaho,” he said. “We know changes are coming to the health insurance marketplace, but we want our customers to know our entire team remains committed to serving them and providing them with access to affordable health insurance options.”

At the national level, sign-ups on the federal exchange fell slightly, from 9.6 million in 2016 to 9.2 million this year.

The federal exchange served 39 states this year, one more than in 2016.

One big difference? The new White House under President Donald Trump pulled $5 million of advertising in the days leading up to the sign-up deadline, when the Obama administration typically would have made a final push to reach consumers.

But Idaho’s exchange also cut way back on advertising — from $1.2 million last year to $650,000 this year.

So what’s the difference?

Kelly said three factors probably drove the surge in enrollments:

▪  Idaho front-loaded its outreach. The state-run exchange always planned to taper off on ads and outreach, Kelly said. “In the early years, we spent a lot of money to educate people, build awareness of what Your Health Idaho is, and to (gain recognition as) a resource for them to understand their needs for health insurance,” he said.

▪  Insurance agents made themselves a “really critical part of our ecosystem with the exchange,” he said. “We have over 900 agents and enrollment counselors across the state who are able to sit down ... one-on-one.”

▪  While premiums rose and insurers carved out special networks that limit consumers’ choices of where they get medical care, the Idaho exchange has expanded its insurance menu. In other states, insurance companies have pulled out of exchanges, sometimes leaving just one company. Idaho this year had five companies selling 225 types of health and dental plans.

“The real difference in Idaho is local control, and we are independent,” Kelly said.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @audreydutton