Thursday June 7, 2012

Patients' monthly premiums for the state-subsidized health insurance program Commonwealth Care are once again fluctuating, and local health care advocates are urging people to get informed of their choices within the narrow window of open enrollment this month.

What had been the most expensive Commonwealth Care provider in the Berkshires will soon be the least: BMC (Boston Medical Center) HealthNet dropped its monthly rates by up to $79 for fiscal 2013.

Meanwhile, Network Health, a newer provider in the county, had been the cheapest option but raised its rates by up to $10 a month. A third option accepted only by some physicians in North County, Celticare, has also raised its rates by as much as $31.

About 5,700 people in the Berkshires have health insurance through Commonwealth Care, a state subsidized program meant to offer coverage for the uninsured. In the county, about 43 percent of members are in an income bracket that allows them to pay no premium, while the rest will pay between $ 3 and $ 147 per month, depending on their plan and their income.

All Commonwealth Care members only have between June 1 and 22 to decide whether or not to change plans, a choice that they will have to stick with for the next 12 months.

" It's a problem because there is an open enrollment period which is very narrow - it's only 22 days," said Octavio Hernandez, public benefits specialist for Community Health Programs in Great Barrington.


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Hernandez expressed concern that clients who don't stay on top of their mail or come in for a doctor's visit may inadvertently miss the opportunity to evaluate their insurance options.

"Some of them may lose the open enrollment opportunity to switch and save money dramatically," he said.

During open enrollment last year, Network Health offered significantly lower monthly premiums than BMC HealthNet, but because the former was a newer presence in the county, many physicians were not yet accepting it. Some said the situation forced patients to choose between paying less and being able to keep their doctor.

Patient advocates stressed that people on Commonwealth Care must assess their options before June 22. " People just need to be aware that prices are shifting, and they have to choose a plan that they feel comfortable with," said Chip Joffe-Halpern, executive director of Ecu-Health Care in North Adams.

To reach Amanda Korman: akorman@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6243.

On Twitter:@mandface



Find help ...

For assistance with understanding health insurance options:

Advocacy for Access in Pittsfield, (413) 445-9480

Advocacy for Access in Great Barrington, (413) 854-9608

Ecu-Health Care in North Adams, (413) 663-8711

Health Connector: 877MA-ENROLL (877-623-6765), 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or MAhealthconnector.org.