Image from a commercial Maryland Health Benefits Exchange ran online. (YouTube screenshot)

The window for Marylanders to enroll in health insurance plans for 2016 has been opened, and officials say they are making special efforts to get more Black and Hispanic residents signed up by the Jan. 31 deadline.

“We have, from the beginning, made special effort to reach the African-American and Hispanic communities,” said Carolyn Quattrocki, executive director, Maryland Health Benefits Exchange, the quasi-governmental organization that runs the state health insurance marketplace, called the Maryland Health Connection. “We estimate African Americans make up about 25 percent of the uninsured in the state so we’re redoubling our efforts to get them enrolled.” 

Maryland was one of the first states to adopt the health insurance marketplace envisioned by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The Maryland Health Connection launched on Oct. 1, 2013 to a rocky start. Despite the problems, however, the state almost doubled its enrollment goal of 260,000, signing up 458,000 people: 81,553 in private health plans and another 376,850 in Medicaid, according to its annual report. After a new system was installed, enrollment further skyrocketed and more than 700,000 Marylanders signed up for coverage through the exchange in 2015, Quattrocki said.

In fact, according to a Gallup-Healthways poll, the rate of the uninsured in Maryland went from 12.9 percent in 2013 to about 7 percent in mid-2015.

According to a study by The Commonwealth Fund, in 2013, the year before the ACA’s major coverage expansions took effect, more than one of five Blacks ages 18 to 64 (22 percent) and one of three Hispanics (33 percent) did not have health insurance, compared with one of seven Whites (14 percent).

Those abysmal rates have been decreased, particularly in states like Maryland that have expanded Medicaid. However, much still needs to be done. For example, last year, only 23,000 out of a possible 120,000 self-identified African-American Marylanders (18 percent) enrolled into private insurance plans, Quattrocki said.

That’s why the MHBE is putting much more emphasis on information sharing in their 2016 enrollment campaign.

“We have definitely put more emphasis on outreach in the community. we’ve doubled our social media this year,” said Andrew Ratner, director of Marketing and Strategic Initiatives, MHBE.

As such, the agency’s print advertising buy has been decreased from $1.7 million to $1 million. And their advertising will be much more targeted, including the use of media outlets with large Black and Hispanic audiences, Ratner said.

“Our TV and radio advertising is highly structured around the areas that have the most remaining uninsured in Maryland,” he said, mentioning Prince George’s County and the Eastern Shore, specifically. “And we’ll also supplement with radio and print advertising statewide.”

But, much of their efforts will be in making direct connections with the community, through involvement in local events, partnerships with local organizations—such as the NAACP, the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, Black Greek organizations, etc.; and partnerships with colleges and community influencers to help motivate people to enroll, Quattrocki said.

For example, Meredith Huston, who writes the blog “The Empowered Mocha Patient,” will attend an enrollment event in Baltimore on Dec. 13 to promote open enrollment. She’ll host a live video stream and Q&A session with a navigator at the event and do social media promotion.

Perhaps, the most important effort, however—particularly in the Black community—will be the agency’s engagement with churches. The MHBE is organizing a “Super Health Sunday” scheduled for Jan. 24 with several predominantly Black churches, where navigators will be on site to assist consumers just prior to the end of open enrollment season. Also, United Baptist Church on Eager Street in Baltimore is hosting a navigator to enroll members on Dec. 6 and also plans to host “Super Health Sunday.”

“Our goal is to make sure everyone in Maryland who is eligible for insurance gets it,” DeMarco said, “and the best way is working through the faith community.”

Maryland residents interested in enrolling in a health insurance plan for 2016 can do so by getting free in-person help, by attending an enrollment event, by calling 855-642-8572 or by visiting the Maryland Health Connection website. For more details, visit: