MORE INFORMATION

For more information, go to www.BeWellNM.com or www.SeguroQueSiNM.com for a Spanish version. The NMHIX call center can be reached by dialing 1-855-99-NMHIX.

FARMINGTON — Officials from the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange have reached out to communities throughout the state to explain the exchange and new insurance plans, periodically holding seminars in San Juan County.

But many of those seminars have been sparsely attended. A free health insurance exchange seminar and dinner scheduled last week in Bloomfield was cancelled due to a lack of response.

"We advertised for three weeks before, put it on our reader board and hand-delivered invitations to various doctor's offices and small businesses," said Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce President Janet Mackey. "We only had seven people RSVP, and since we were also going to be providing dinner, we thought with so few people it would be a waste of resources."

Only 10 people attended a separate seminar in Wednesday at the Courtyard by Marriott in Farmington.

New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange, or NMIX, hosted the seminar, along with the Association of Commerce and Industry and the New Mexico Restaurant Association.

Barbara Lardner, an NMHIX insurance broker in Belen, helped lead the seminar. She explained the exchange is for people who don't have insurance, can't afford insurance through their employer or buy their own insurance and want more options. It is also for small businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

"New Mexico is known as a 'hybrid state' because small businesses can sign up for insurance utilizing the state's Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, while individuals must use the federal government's exchange, at least for this year," Lardner said.

Lardner said that while the federal exchange system has had trouble getting started, the state-run system is working relatively well.

"The small business exchange has had some glitches, but at least if you call they'll answer. They're doing a wonderful job," she said.

Lardner also discussed Medicaid expansions under the new health care system and outlined which individuals and families are eligible to receive financial help with their insurance plans.

Individuals and families who live below 400 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for tax credits and subsidies, which can only be obtained through the exchange.

Small businesses can also be eligible for tax credits but must use the NMHIX SHOP system to claim them. November and December represent a "golden enrollment period" for small businesses, during which there is no minimum employee participation rate. After that, there will be a minimum 50 percent participation rate requirement.

Insurance plans through the exchange are organized into various levels, from bronze to platinum.

"The exchange enables you to really pick a plan that works for you," Lardner said.

Staring March 31 -- an extension of the original Jan. 1 deadline -- most individuals will face penalties if they do not have insurance. After that, individuals without coverage will pay a $95 fee or 1 percent of their taxable income, whichever is greater. The fee goes up to $325 in 2015 and to $695 in 2016.

The enrollment period started Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 7. Those who miss the deadline can still get insurance but won't be eligible to apply for a subsidy, said Monica Griego, an NMHIX consultant from Albuquerque, who also led the seminar.

Some people at Wednesday's seminar expressed frustration that their insurance premiums are increasing under the new plans. Griego explained that is because certain coverages -- such as maternity, mental health and substance abuse -- are now being included in everyone's plans, regardless of whether or not people want or need the coverage.

Griego said as more people enroll in insurance plans, the costs will go down.

"The key is the inclusion of the 'young and invincibles,'" she said. "Young people don't know how expensive health care can be. Just to get a broken arm can be really expensive. We're working with colleges to get the word out, and as more of these individuals get insurance, premium contributions to our system will lower care costs for everyone."

Lori Raef attended the seminar with her husband, Hector Garcia. The couple owns A-One Mobile Screens, and Raef said she has been informed by Blue Cross Blue Shield that her current insurance plan will be cancelled at the end of the month because it doesn't have the added coverage items. Raef said that she needs to re-enroll in one of the NMHIX plans, and her new premium will be significantly higher.

"I do believe everyone should have insurance, but I just don't think this is the right way to do it," she said. "My benefits will go down, but my premiums will go up, and what bothers me is that middle class people are going to end up paying more for everyone else's benefits."

Leigh Black Irvin covers health for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4610 and lirvin@daily-times.com Follow her @irvindailytimes on Twitter.