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Open enrollment for ACA insurance has already had a record year for sign-ups

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Enrollment in Obamacare set a record again this year. Nearly 16 million people have signed up so far. And in many states, there are still a few more days to enroll. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin explains why these health insurance plans have become more popular.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: First of all, the plans are cheaper for people than they used to be. The government has pumped billions of dollars into subsidies to keep costs down for consumers. Another reason why more people are signing up - there's more help.

KATIE RODERS TURNER: This year, we really caught our stride.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Katie Roders Turner. She runs the Family Healthcare Foundation, which is part of the Tampa Bay Navigator Project in Florida. Navigators help people understand their options, decide on a plan and get signed up for it - all for free. They're paid through government grants. The Trump administration slashed funding for navigators. The Biden administration shored it up. The Tampa Bay Navigator Project went from having a team of 16 navigators to, this year, having 35.

RODERS TURNER: So we've been really able to spread out the need and the demand amongst those navigators.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One of the people her organization helped recently was Erin Dimmig. She and her husband, Tyler, are 30 years old. They live in Plant City, Fla. And right now, she is, as she puts it, very pregnant. She's due with her first child in February.

ERIN DIMMIG: My husband got a new job offer. And that puts him in a 90-day insurance gap, and we were due in 60 days.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: They couldn't afford to keep paying for the insurance he'd had through his old job. COBRA was going to cost them $1,600 a month, and that plan had been expensive for them anyway. She Googled her way to healthcare.gov, the federal insurance marketplace, which Florida and lots of other states use, and she started to answer questions, like size of household, income...

DIMMIG: Once you click the you're-pregnant button, it asks you all sorts of confusing questions, and I was absolutely in over my head. So I, like, went to the find-help place.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Localhelp.healthcare.gov has a directory to find navigators in your area. Erin found a local community center on the list and called them.

DIMMIG: I called, and they were like, well, Jorge comes in on Thursday.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So the Dimmigs went to see Jorge Masson. She was so stressed she would be uninsured when she went into labor.

DIMMIG: But then he found me the plan. And then he told me all of the things, and I realized how much money it was going to save us. I cried in his office. I cried when we found out that we were going to be saving a lot of money.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She estimates it's going to save them $9,000 compared to their old plan. They're not done with health insurance. After the baby's born, they'll need to add the baby to their plan, decide whether to sign up for her husband's new employer-based plan when he becomes eligible.

DIMMIG: Jorge said that he would help walk us through that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So she's not worried. Roders Turner says the Dimmigs aren't alone.

RODERS TURNER: People have been really pleased with the cost of the insurance plans and the options that they have.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Federal health officials say 4 out of 5 enrollees qualify for plans that cost $10 or less per month, and 5 million people who are uninsured qualify for $0 premium plans. They haven't signed up either because they don't know about the plans, or they assume they're not eligible. Enrollment is still open on the federal health exchange, healthcare.gov, and in most state marketplaces until Sunday, January 15.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.