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Twice as many get private insurance through Md. health exchange

The number of people who bought private health plans on the Maryland exchange set up under health reform doubled from last year.

Private plans were bought by 119,096 people during the three-month open enrollment that ended Sunday, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange said Tuesday. Last year, about 63,000 bought private plans during open enrollment.

Boosting the number of Marylanders in private plans was a goal of exchange officials this year. Last year, the first for enrollment through the exchange, most who secured plans enrolled in government-funded Medicaid.

In total, 264,245 residents got insurance during this year's enrollment, including 145,149 who signed up for Medicaid. During the prior enrollment period, nearly 300,000 enrolled in insurance plans, including 232,075 in Medicaid.

People can apply for Medicaid at any time, but private insurance plans are offered only during the enrollment period.

"What we see in these really big numbers is that there was still a real need out there for people who wanted insurance," said Carolyn Quattrocki, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, who said she was pleased with the success.

The enrollment process ran more smoothly than last year, when the state exchange stumbled badly because of technical problems. After enrollment ended, Maryland scrapped its technology and acquired software used by Connecticut to build a new system.

Because the site worked better, Quattrocki said, she believes more people were able to enroll in private plans. The state hired several community groups, such as Healthy Howard and Health Care Access Maryland, to help people fill out applications.

The only problem this year came when some of the 8,600 people who called seeking assistance with enrollment on the last day could not get through to the overwhelmed help center.

Those people — and anyone else who started an application and did not complete it — will get nearly two more weeks to enroll in health insurance, which will add to the total.

An extension also was granted last year, and total enrollment eventually reached nearly 460,000, including those who signed up under the extension, additional Medicaid patients and those who had life changes, such as getting married.

People who do not get insurance through their employers are required to secure insurance through the exchange under the Affordable Care Act or pay a penalty.

In 2015, the penalty for not having coverage is 2 percent of gross household income over the federal income tax filing threshold, or $325 per individual, whichever is greater. Those who received subsidies to help pay for private plans also might have to pay them back if they discover their incomes were higher than they thought.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who supports the health care law and is fighting efforts by Republicans to repeal Obamacare at the federal level, praised efforts in Maryland.

"I am pleased that open enrollment for 2015 through the Maryland Health Connection has been a success and that so many families have access to affordable, quality health coverage," the Maryland Democrat said.