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Narrow window closing for Affordable Care Act open enrollment

COOS COUNTY — Earlier in November, open enrollment on the individual health insurance marketplace opened amid a grim outlook for its future.

The marketplace, which was created by the Affordable Care Act, allows people who don’t get insurance through their employer to buy health coverage.

Facing fewer carrier options and higher premiums, Coos County residents are stuck choosing between paying exorbitant amounts for medical insurance coverage or foregoing it altogether.

Jami Quinn, an agent with The Vigue Company, said the amount some people will end up having to pay could equal a house payment, or more.

For example, a family of five with a 36-year-old dad and 35-year-old mom could pay $1,700 a month for a mid-range plan without any subsidies.

Another example Quinn provided was for a 64-year with a $6,560 deductible that would have to pay $854 a month for insurance.

“It’s not a very fun market to work in, because it’s just a very grim outlook,” Quinn said.

In Coos County, there are two insurance carriers that cover the individual market: Moda and Providence.

“Now they’re down to two options, they used to have six,” Quinn said.

The individual enrollment coincides with Medicare enrollment, so it’s a busy time for insurance agents.

The enrollment period started on Nov. 1 and will close Dec. 15, which leaves consumers with half the time to sign up for coverage compared to last year.

Last month, another wrench was thrown into the plan.

On Oct. 12, the Trump administration announced it would end cost-sharing payments.

Quinn said the decision has caused an increase on silver-level plans.

“It was a little shocker that in the eleventh hour right when open enrollment starts to happen this thing gets taken away,” Quinn said.

Right now, most Americans are facing higher premiums.

“In the marketplace, we’re seeing 20 to 30 percent increases,” said Phil Greenhill, CEO of Western Oregon Advanced Health.

Just for WOAH employees, initial insurance premiums were quoted at 20 percent. After some negotiation it was brought down to 20.3 percent.

“We’re seeing those types of increases across the board and probably across the nation,” Greenhill said.

He explained that when the public first saw premiums drop on the commercial market with the ACA expansion, everyone had insurance.

“When commercial plans first went to market under ACA, Congress gave insurance groups a ‘risk corridor,’ or price plans,” said WOAH’s Chief Medical Officer Theresa Muday. “They offered subsidies on the second highest silver plan complex formula, but in effect told plans that if expenses are above what is expected then the federal government will protect you. They did this because they wanted ACA to succeed. Now they came around saying no, we don’t mean that.”

Since then, insurance companies have watched safety nets disappear.

“When plans first came into the marketplace, they were as cheap as possible so everyone signed up,” Muday said. “You had healthy and sick people signing up, which lowers the average cost for everyone. As the government said maybe they won’t enforce the mandate for healthy people to sign up, insurance companies are making a calculation that those who do sign up are sick and if only sick people sign up you have to set a price on that, which means premiums go up. That’s likely playing into the rate fluctuations that we’re seeing, but that is just speculation.”

Senator Jeff Merkley’s office said that the Trump administration put restrictions on open enrollment to weaken the health care marketplace.

“It’s disappointing that people out there are sowing confusion and trying to dissuade fellow Americans from getting health coverage. That's why every Oregonian should spread the word: There is less than a month remaining to sign up for affordable health coverage for 2018,” Merkley said in a statement, “It’s critical that everyone in our communities knows that this is the remaining window to sign up through the ACA marketplace.”

Senator Ron Wyden also expressed concerns about the limited outreach efforts.

“Regardless of what the final enrollment numbers look like, I’m glad that the Affordable Care Act was not repealed this year despite multiple attempts by the Republican Congress, which would have made it much harder for people in Coos County and the rest of Oregon to get health care for their families.” Wyden said.

According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one third of Americans said they hadn’t heard anything about the sign-up period.

While many were concerned that a lack of exposure would decrease the amount of people enrolling on the exchange, early reports show those fears to be unfounded.

The Washington Post reported that enrollment has surged at least 47 percent in 39 states compared to the same time period last year.

Oregonians can still buy individual health insurance on

For insurance agent Quinn, once the government gets involved in health care, rapidly enrolling thousands of people through the ACA in Coos County alone, it’s hard to revert back.

“Once you starts those (government) wheels spinning you can’t undo it,” Quinn said. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to undo that type of structure that you’ve created.”

Bethany Baker, The World 

Southwestern Oregon Community College hosted their first Take Back the Night event on campus on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The international event is intended to be a direct action against sexual assault and domestic violence.

Bethany Baker, The World 

Ian Bailey, a student advisor for Trio, marches through campus at Southwestern Oregon Community College for their first Take Back the Night event on campus on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The international event is intended to be a direct action against sexual assault and domestic violence.

Bethany Baker, The World 

Southwestern Oregon Community College hosted their first Take Back the Night event on campus on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Take Back the Night is an international event intended to be a direct action against sexual assault and domestic violence.

Bethany Baker, The World 

Samantha Maxey pins a symbolic ribbon to the shirt of Abigail Maxey, 3, after watching a march through Southwestern Oregon Community College for Take Back the Night on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Take Back the Night is an international event intended to be a direct action against sexual assault and domestic violence.

Bethany Baker, The World 

Participants marched through Southwestern Oregon Community College during the first Take Back the Night event on campus on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The international event is intended to be a direct action against sexual assault and domestic violence.

Bethany Baker, The World 

SWOCC's Anson Cancencia (3) dribbles the ball against Willamette JV at home on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. The Lakers defeated Willamette JV, 111-73.

Keystone pipeline leak won't affect last regulatory hurdle

LINCOLN, Neb. — Discovery of a 210,000-gallon oil leak from the Keystone pipeline would seem to be poor timing four days before regulators in Nebraska decide whether to allow a major expansion of the system, but officials say state law does not allow pipeline safety to be a factor in their decision.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission was scheduled to rule Monday if a Keystone XL expansion pipeline proposed by TransCanada Corp. can cross the state. The commission's decision is the last major regulatory hurdle for a project that has faced numerous local, state and federal reviews and lawsuits since it was announced in 2008.

Keystone operator TransCanada Corp. shut down the existing pipeline early Thursday morning and workers were testing to determine the cause of the spill on agricultural land in Marshall County, South Dakota, near the North Dakota border, about 250 miles west of Minneapolis.

State and company officials said the spill was not a threat to waterways or drinking water, but critics were quick to use the leak as an example of what they see as the risks to the environment.

The Nebraska vote Monday will be on a proposed route for Keystone XL, a massive expansion that also would be operated by TransCanada. The new pipeline would carry an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the oil sands areas of Canada through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, where it would connect with the existing Keystone pipeline.

The decision will hinge on testimony and documents generated from public hearings over the summer and from more than 500,000 public comments, Nebraska Public Service Commission spokeswoman Deb Collins said. A state law passed in 2011 prevents the commission from factoring pipeline safety or the possibility of leaks into its decisions.

"The commission's decision ... will be based on the evidence in the record," Collins said.

The Keystone XL proposal has faced intense opposition in Nebraska from a coalition of environmental groups, Native American tribes and some landowners who don't want the pipeline running through their property.

Nebraska lawmakers gave the five-member commission the power to regulate major oil pipelines in 2011 in response to a public outcry over the pipeline and its potential impact on the Sandhills, an ecologically fragile region of grass-covered sand dunes.

But when they passed the law, legislators argued that pipeline safety is a federal responsibility and should not factor in the state decision.

Opponents of Keystone XL are incensed that the leak won't be considered.

"There is a reason TransCanada and the big oil lobby did not want this information on the record," said Jane Kleeb, director of the Bold Alliance, a coalition of groups that have opposed the Keystone XL for nearly a decade.

President Donald Trump issued a federal permit for the expansion project in March even though it had been rejected by the Obama administration.

The existing Keystone pipeline, where the leak was discovered, transports crude from Canada to refineries in Illinois and a major storage hub in Oklahoma, passing through the eastern Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. It can handle nearly 600,000 barrels daily, or about 23 million gallons.

Since 2010, companies have reported 17 spills in the U.S. the same size or larger than the leak announced Thursday, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records.

Officials in South Dakota said they weren't notified about the leak until roughly five hours after TransCanada discovered it. Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist manager at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said officials would likely inquire about the delay but were focusing immediately on the spill.

TransCanada said Friday the leak was controlled and posed no threat to public safety. The company has sent more than 75 workers to the spill site, including environmental, engineering and emergency response specialists.

TransCanada spokesman Matthew John said the company will need to do "extensive testing" along with federal regulators and independent testing facilities before they can pinpoint a cause.

An aerial photo released by TransCanada on Twitter that the company says is of the spill, shows a darkened area on flat agricultural land. There do not appear to be any waterways or towns nearby.

Lumber industry concerned about new emission rules

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality has been working for the past year on a set of rules, known as Cleaner Air Oregon, aimed at regulating emissions produced by industrial facilities.

The new regulations have been drafted and are being presented for community discussion throughout the state. Thursday night, the DEQ met with concerned Coos County residents and industry representatives to take into consideration public comments for the final draft of these new regulations. Around 50 residents showed up for the Thursday meeting to take part in the discussion of new emission regulations.

Many industries, including the lumber industry are very worried about the effect that new regulations could have on businesses.

Ellen Porter, director of environmental affairs at Roseburg Forest Products said, “These rules are so stringent that if a facility can’t comply, or afford to comply they could lose their business.”

According to Porter, Cleaner Air Oregon’s industrial air quality regulations would be the most stringent in the nation.

The DEQ began drafting up the Cleaner Air Oregon regulations in response to an issue with Bullseye Glass, a glass manufacturing company that operates out of South Portland. Last year, Bullseye Glass was found blowing excess dust from toxic metals used to make different colors in its glass into the atmosphere, which set in motion the Clean Air Oregon regulations.

“One of the things that really upset people with Bullseye was that they were supposed to be subject to a federal standard, but they had gotten a determination from both DEQ and EPA that they didn’t have to comply with it. That’s why they didn’t have any emission controls on,” Tom Wood, an attorney with the firm Stoel and Rives who represents companies regarding emissions, said.

DEQ has since worked with Bullseye Glass to retrofit their facility to stop pumping out potentially dangerous toxins.

Over the first five years, new regulations would monitor the 80 highest risk facilities in the state. Businesses being monitored would be forced to report the emissions of up to 600 different air toxins. Businesses would also be tasked with assessing and reporting the health risks from their toxic emissions to the people living, working, or going to school near their facilities. Facilities will have to keep air toxic emissions below risk action levels by installing or upgrading emission control, use safer materials instead of hazardous ones, and adjust operations.

New regulations could be costly for some businesses. When a business is over the Risk Action Levels they will be forced to pay fees based on the level of risk.

Representatives from Roseburg Forest Products spoke at the meeting, arguing that these regulations were designed to address a problem in the urbanized Portland area, not in rural Oregon.

“Roseburg has spent around $50 million over the past several years as it is to get into compliance with the EPA’s emission standards. We find it concerning that that these rules were drafted largely in a response to issues in Portland. They’re trying to apply regulations statewide whether the issues are there or not. One size doesn’t fit all,” Porter said.

In the Cleaner Air Oregon plan, it says that companies operating at a higher risk can continue to operate if they are using the best controls. According to the document, companies will be able to choose the best way to reduce emissions.

Specifically speaking to the concerns of forest product companies DEQ argues that Washington currently has the same risk limits for air toxins as those proposed in the Cleaner Air Oregon plan, and the industry continues to expand and open new facilities.

“I think one of our biggest concerns is that politics is driving this program. Nobody is opposed to the idea of making sure we have good safe air… We need to make sure that we make sure we aren’t addressing Portland and rural areas in the same way, because they face very different issues,” Wood said.