As Marylanders are filling out their tax returns this year, state officials and advocates are hoping they’ll take an extra half-second to check a box to start the process of enrolling in health insurance.
Maryland was the first state in the country to establish a tax-based “Easy Enrollment” program in 2019. Since then, more than 100,000 people have checked a box on their tax returns to get more information about health insurance plans available to them — often at low or no cost.
More than 10,000 people have enrolled, said Michele Eberle, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.
When a person checks the box, the exchange is given information from their tax filing and sends along individualized information about what health insurance plans they might qualify for. Exchange staff members follow up to help with enrollment, Eberle said.
The program is a key component of Maryland’s effort to expand health insurance coverage.
Since 2010, the state’s rate of uninsured residents has dropped from about 11% to 6%.
“Our goal is to go from 6% uninsured to 0% uninsured,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care for All Coalition.
Nine states have followed Maryland’s lead and established similar tax-filing enrollment programs: California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
And on Monday, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) is moving to take the program national. Van Hollen is expected to introduce the “Easy Enrollment in Health Care Act,” which would add a checkbox to federal tax forms and direct details from those interested to state health programs.
The bill would also include a 60-day special enrollment window as part of the program, Van Hollen said.
The senator was on hand Friday for a press conference in Annapolis in which lawmakers and officials sought to increase awareness of Maryland’s Easy Enrollment program.
About 370,000 Marylanders who lack health insurance, Van Hollen said. But around half — 185,000 people or so — are in fact eligible for insurance through Medicaid, the Maryland Children’s Health Program or other plans, though they’ve lacked the access to enroll, he said.
Nationally, an estimated 7.3 million Americans are eligible for a health insurance program, but not enrolled, Van Hollen said.
Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller (D) said the added “touch points” created by the tax form help state agencies reach more people in need and guide them through the enrollment process as they juggle busy lives.
“The process of health insurance enrollment is complex and difficult even under the best of times,” Miller said. “And of course challenges have been compounded in the pandemic.”
Even though leaders consider Maryland’s program a success so far, state law allows the legislation to go further and automatically enroll interested tax filers in Medicaid, but that’s been thwarted by outdated technology at the state comptroller’s office.
Newly elected Comptroller Brooke E. Lierman (D) said getting the automatic enrollment program online is one of her top priorities in office.
“We are not going to give up until it’s easier and easier and easier to enroll,” Lierman said. “Now, we have some old systems here in the comptroller’s office. …One of our biggest efforts is to modernize our tax service and our tax infrastructure.”
In an interview, Lierman said her office is in the process of negotiating the contract for an integrated tax system that is “much more nimble and will enable automatic enrollment,” but full implementation is likely still a few years off.
For now, she encouraged all Marylanders — even if they question whether they’d qualify for a health insurance program — to check the box on their tax returns for more information.
DeMarco and others said it was important to gather in Annapolis to share information about the Easy Enrollment program near the start of tax season, particularly because lower-income residents tend to file earlier “because they want their refunds right away.”
“So we want to reach them right away,” DeMarco said.
By Danielle E. Gaines