‘It’s nonstop.’ During pandemic, Florida once again leads in Obamacare signups.

Ben Conarck

Having signed up Floridians navigating the confusing terrain of the federal health insurance marketplace for the last several years, Jodi Ray of the University of South Florida is used to being busy this time of year.

Since 2018, Ray and her team of navigators have operated with about one fifth of the funding they had when Obamacare was first rolled out almost a decade ago, using it to steer people to the right insurance plans during open enrollment, which started on November 1 and runs until December 15.

But in 2020, on top of seeing all the returning consumers her team usually helps, Ray said there is a new wave of uninsured people who have migrated from other states, particularly California and New York, often fleeing industries decimated by the coronavirus pandemic like the performing arts.

“Unless you’re an A-List person, it’s very difficult to survive in those states on unemployment,” said Ray, who has helped her fair share of out-of-work performers in a year she said is the busiest she can recall.

Ray, who runs the largest group of Obamacare navigators in the state, encouraged Floridians to visit CoveringFlorida.org for more information on signing up for a plan, or calling 877-813-9115.

From November 1 to November 28, more than 870,000 Floridians signed up on the federal marketplace, leading the country among the 36 states with exchanges on HealthCare.gov. That outpaces the record year Florida had last year, when nearly 797,000 people signed up between November 1 and November 30.

Steven Ullmann, a healthcare policy expert with the University of Miami, said he’s not surprised to see that increase in enrollments, given the pandemic and the fact that Florida usually leads in enrollment due to a heavy concentration of workers in the service industries.

“Now you add to that the services that are being so impacted by COVID, and that impact is even larger,” Ullmann said. “A lot of people who had jobs in the service sector where they had some employer-based health insurance have lost that as well.”

Ullmann said there is added incentive in South Florida to sign up for any health insurance plan, even the ones with high deductibles — up to $6,000 until a plan’s coverage kicks in — that are most popular on the federal health exchange. That’s because Miami-Dade County has some of the most expensive healthcare in the country, he said.

“People have a realization that to offset some of those costs, if they ever needed any healthcare, that the insurance is something that they want to have,” he said.

Slightly more funding for navigators than last year

After federal funding cuts, Ray’s team of navigators have been operating with about $1.25 million a year in funding for the last several years. This year, with two states pulling out of the federal marketplace to set up their own exchanges under the law, Ray said federal officials allocated about $1.6 million for Florida.

Ray said she used the money to add more navigators in Central Florida and the Panhandle.

“I immediately focused on those areas that we knew we didn’t have any coverage,” she said. “It didn’t solve the problem entirely but it certainly gave us an in-person presence in some of the areas we knew we weren’t covering.”

That still pales in comparison to the nearly $6 million in funding Florida navigators enjoyed after Obamacare was enacted, Ray said.

And in a pandemic year that has been busier than ever, she added that newly hired navigators are going to spend a lot of time helping those who haven’t done this before. That means a lot less time running through the motions and more time explaining the difference between “out-of-pocket costs” and deductibles, she added.

“You’re working with folks that need help for the first time in a long time,” Ray said. “You’ve got to be patient and compassionate, because their current situation is highly stressful.”