BISMARCK - New data show that 265 North Dakotans signed up for private insurance under the federal health care law in the first two months of the federally run online marketplace, a significant rise from 42 the first month but still the lowest total in the nation.
People can compare coverage and prices and select health plans through the marketplace, but it was plagued by problems after going online Oct. 1. Those problems eased in the second month of operation, said Neil Scharpe, who is in charge of North Dakota's so-called navigators - people who find uninsured residents and help them with their options.
"This week, even starting last week, things have worked so much better," he said. "The information I'm getting back from our navigators across the state is that there is just a lot more success. I can't encourage people enough to give it a try."
North Dakota still has the fewest successful signups among the 36 states allowing the federal government to run the insurance marketplace. Other states are handling their own.
Scharpe estimated there are about 40,000 North Dakotans needing health insurance through the marketplace. Through the end of November there were only 2,253 applications covering 4,350 people.
The low number is due to the website problems and another likely reason, according to Scharpe.
"I do believe some of it is a bit of apathy," he said. "We've not received a lot of requests for assistance from the younger population in North Dakota that we believe are uninsured."
Uninsured people who don't sign up for a plan will face tax penalties when they file their returns for the 2014 tax year. Signups continue through March, but consumers face a Dec. 23 enrollment deadline if they want to have coverage on Jan. 1.
Scharpe said navigators are focusing on those people, especially since Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota - the state's largest insurer - is not extending policies that are being canceled effective Jan. 1 because they don't meet the higher benefit requirements of the Affordable Care Act.
"If Blue Cross Blue Shield sent out 10,000 notices that insurance is going to be discontinued, there really should be 10,000 people accessing the marketplace to look for alternative insurance," Scharpe said.
The other companies selling insurance to North Dakotans on the marketplace are Sanford Health Plan and Medica.