Arizona insurers having trouble with health law exchange

2013-11-10T00:00:00Z 2013-11-10T21:14:07Z Arizona insurers having trouble with health law exchangeBy Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

One local community health center that caters to the uninsured hasn’t enrolled anyone in insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

A Cochise County center managed to get one person signed up.

On the insurance side, one of the eight companies on the Arizona marketplace shared its enrollment figures — 16 individuals and families bought insurance plans in the first four weeks since the marketplace went live.

Arizona’s health insurance marketplace is one of the most competitive in the country, but after five weeks, enrollment remains slow.

The federal government operates the marketplace for Arizona and 35 other states. Its healthcare.gov website is not expected to be working smoothly until the end of November, officials with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said last week.

That leaves only two weeks for people to sign up online if they want health insurance by Jan. 1, since people must sign up by Dec. 15 to have coverage by the beginning of the year.

Some insurers are wondering whether an extension of the six-month enrollment period might help.

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat, has co-sponsored legislation that seeks to delay the penalties for not having health insurance because of the online enrollment problems. Barber and four colleagues have also written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an in-depth review of the companies responsible for the healthcare.gov website.

“With the federal marketplace experiencing technical issues, we are seeing a low number of enrollees coming to us through the marketplace,” said Jeff Stelnik, senior vice president of strategy, sales and marketing for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. “We knew with an implementation of this size that there would likely be challenges; we just didn’t anticipate that it would be of this magnitude.”

As of Oct. 30, Meritus, a new nonprofit Arizona health insurance company, had enrolled just 16 individuals and families through the marketplace.

“The marketplace is still not functioning very well. It’s slow. It takes so long that we’re not getting the level of enrollment that we expected,” said Kathy Oestreich, chief executive officer of Meritus, which is a health insurance co-op (consumer-oriented and -operated plan).

“This is a little more problematic than we expected and it’s lasting longer than we expected. I guess what we feel good about is that we have had enrollment, so we do know it works from beginning to end.”

Officials with Tucson-based nonprofit University of Arizona Health Plan — University Healthcare Marketplace say they are having trouble with the enrollment data they are receiving from the federal government. The data come on a computer form called an 834. Some of the data coming in on those transmissions are wrong, said Karen E. Leonard, vice president of business development for the University of Arizona Health Plans.

Leonard and other insurers are concerned that consumers who could benefit from subsidized insurance might stop trying to get it. During the last week of October, the website had outages for more than 36 hours, leaving many consumers frustrated.

“The consumer experience is critical to the success of the exchanges, and further delays may result in individuals losing interest,” said Anjie Coplin, director of communications for Aetna’s West Region.” We’re ready to do more and gain a full understanding of the plan to put the program on track. “

One staff member in Barber’s office is working full-time resolving constituent issues with the Affordable Care Act.

“It is absolutely astounding we could have launched this major program with so many flaws,” Barber said.

On the upside, people do still have time. Open enrollment goes through March 31.

And one way to shop for plans is going directly to insurance companies. Arizona’s marketplace includes eight insurers who are offering more than 100 plans.

Federal officials say they plan to release an initial set of enrollment data this week.

Though enrollment may be low, Oestreich said people are asking questions and she’s certain there’s a much better awareness about provisions of the law among Arizonans than on Oct. 1.

“The reality is people don’t buy insurance on their first visit seeing the plans,” Oestreich said. “We’re a new company. We have a lot of leads where people are interested in the product.”

St. Elizabeth’s Health Center in Tucson, which serves uninsured and underinsured people, has not enrolled a single person since the marketplace opened on Oct. 1. Instead, navigators and certified application counselors are focusing on educating people about how to purchase insurance through the new health law, center Chief Executive Officer Jane Bakos said.

The Chiricahua Community Health Centers in Cochise County have managed to get one person through the enrollment process, Chief Financial Officer Mac McPherran said last week.

But community health centers are successfully enrolling people in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which is the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people.

As part of health reform, Arizona decided to expand Medicaid by restoring coverage to low-income childless adults beginning Jan. 1. That expansion will make a huge difference for many chronically ill adults without children who are too sick to work and have been accumulating medical debt or delaying care until they have insurance.

Enrollment in the program has been frozen for childless adults since 2011. McPherran said the state’s website for enrolling in AHCCCS — www.healthearizonaplus.gov — is working extremely well and helping to give coverage to the uninsured.

“We’ve made great strides with childless adults,” he said.

Oestreich said that while some people are frustrated, it’s important to focus on the bigger picture.

“It’s still really important that you get insurance.”

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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