HELENA — The number of Montanans who signed up for health coverage through the online marketplace that is a key part of President Barack Obama's health overhaul increased nearly tenfold in December, according to new federal health data released Monday.
From Oct. 1 through Dec. 28, a total of 13,151 Montana residents chose health plans through the federal exchange, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
That is compared to the 1,382 people who had signed up in October and November, the period when problems plagued the rollout of the federal website.
The enrollment spike came as those technical glitches eased and as people sought to enroll for coverage that began Jan. 1.
"There was significant interest, especially late in the month of December," said John Doran, a spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana. "So much so that our customer service department was working overtime."
Jerry Dworak, president and CEO of Montana Health Co-op, said his organization signed up 4,500 people through the exchange and another 900 through direct enrollment by the end of the year. This month, the co-op has been steadily signing up 100 to 150 people per day, he said.
"Word of mouth and perception have changed considerably the last three or four weeks," he said. "I think the tide has turned."
State Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen's office still receives questions from people wondering how the system works and about case-specific problems, but the complaints aren't nearly at the level as last fall, said Lindeen spokeswoman Jennifer McKee.
"It's working better, but I wouldn't say it's working perfectly for everybody all the time," McKee said. "We're happy to see improvement, but there is still some ground to go."
The enrollment period continues until March 31, after which most uninsured people will face a tax penalty in 2014 that is scheduled to rise in later years.
The exchanges are part of the nation's new health care law and are meant to help uninsured or underinsured people find coverage. Subsidies are available for people with incomes less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
More than 2.1 million people signed up nationwide through the end of December, according to the health department.
The plans are grouped according to cost and level of coverage, from the low-end "bronze" plans to the high-end "platinum." In Montana, 52 percent of people chose silver plans, while 26 percent picked bronze plans, according to the data.
About 83 percent of people in Montana who selected plans through the federal exchange are receiving financial help to pay their premiums, according to the federal agency's data.
More women than men have signed up for plans in Montana, and most enrollees are older. About 38 percent who signed up are between the ages of 55 and 64, while the second-highest age group buying coverage was between the ages of 45 and 54, at 19 percent.
There are three companies in Montana selling insurance through the federal exchange: Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Montana Health Co-Op and PacificSource.
Because of some continuing communications glitches with the marketplace, Blue Cross is giving people who enrolled in plans effective Jan. 1 until the end of the month to make the payment on their first premium, Doran said.