More than 36,000 Mainers signed up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act during the first month of open enrollment this fall, according to figures released Tuesday by the federal government. State health experts say it’s a good sign that the program will continue to significantly reduce the number of uninsured Mainers in 2015.

Of the 36,132 who obtained benefits through the health insurance marketplace from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, 39 percent – or 14,091 – were new enrollees, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The remainder were people who had coverage last year and re-enrolled, the agency said. The marketplace is where people – often part-time workers or the self-employed – can purchase subsidized health insurance.

After a glitch-filled start last year, the website is working more smoothly this year, according to organizations that help people sign up for insurance.

Health experts are not surprised that Maine’s re-enrollment rate is among the highest in the country at 61 percent. Nationally, 48 percent of the more than 4 million people who signed up for 2015 benefits were renewing their policies, DHHS said.

Wendy Wolf, president of the Maine Health Access Foundation, a nonprofit that is leading the statewide effort to sign people up for marketplace insurance, said Maine’s success during the 2013-14 enrollment period means there are fewer new customers to acquire, especially during the early stages of enrollment.

With 44,000 enrollees for 2014, Maine beat federal projections by more than 15,000 patients, she said.

“If you start out with a bang, it’s harder and harder to bring new customers into the marketplace,” Wolf said. “There were a lot of folks last year who were ready and willing to get insurance.”

Wolf said the foundation’s goal is for enrollment to reach 55,000 renewing and new customers when the sign-up period ends Feb. 15, further decreasing the number of uninsured Maine adults, estimated at 145,000. Although the final total is difficult to predict, Wolf said the first month was a strong beginning.

Kaia Kallweit, 41, of Portland, one of the re-enrollees, said she’s happy to have insurance even though her premiums are increasing in 2015 because her income is going up.

“I think that’s reasonable,” Kallweit said. “The more money you make, the more you should have to pay, in order for the whole system to work.”

The subsidies, which are available to those earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, are based on a sliding scale and are less generous when patients earn closer to 400 percent of the poverty level, or about $50,000 for an individual.

Kallweit, who co-owns an employment recruiting agency, has been self-employed for many years. Until the Affordable Care Act marketplace opened last year, she had been unable to afford individual insurance for most of that time. Kallweit declined to reveal her income, but said monthly premiums will increase from less than $100 per month this year to about $180 per month in 2015.

Even so, she finds her insurance is more affordable than during much of her adult life. She also is going to the doctor more often for preventive care.

Wolf said that during the next six weeks, she expects the percentage of re-enrollees will decline, while new customers who have procrastinated will start signing up.

Another expected trend, said Emily Brostek, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a nonprofit health advocacy group, is that people will start noticing that if they don’t sign up for insurance, they will have to pay a penalty.

The penalty for failing to obtain coverage in 2014 was $95 or 1 percent of income, but in 2015 that fine jumps to $325 or 2 percent of income.

Many people start working on their taxes in January, and if they hadn’t noticed the penalty before, they would be more likely to notice once they start pulling together tax information, Brostek said.

“Some people are motivated by the penalty, and it’s going to be much higher,” Brostek said. “That’s why it’s so important that people be aware, so they don’t go to do their taxes in April, when it’s too late to sign up, and get a surprise.”

Brostek said that aside from the penalty, she believes that as the Feb. 15 deadline approaches, people who were procrastinating will show up, creating a last-minute surge. She said late filers flooded in March, the deadline to obtain 2014 coverage.

“Let’s face it, it’s not fun. No one loves to shop for insurance,” Brostek said.

Mitchell Stein, a Cumberland-based healthy policy expert, believes the numbers will continue to increase through Feb. 15.

“There are still people who need coverage. It’s not like we’re running out of the uninsured,” Stein said.

The percentage of Maine’s adult population without medical insurance dropped 2.8 percentage points, from 16.1 percent in 2013 – before people could enroll in Affordable Care Act coverage – to 13.3 percent midway through 2014, according to a Gallup poll released in August.

Kevin Lewis, CEO of the Maine Community Health Options co-op, one of the insurers on the marketplace, said the numbers so far are coming in strong, although he didn’t have a prediction on what the final enrollment will be. Although the new cooperative captured more than 80 percent of the market in 2014, there’s more competition this year with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield again offering marketplace insurance and Harvard Pilgrim offering plans for the first time.

Rory Sheehan, Anthem spokesman, said it’s too soon “for a comparison, but we are encouraged by what we are seeing and anticipate that enrollment will continue to grow.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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