By ROSEMARIE DAY and DAVID W. JOHNSON
Within the current political reality, how can America implement policies that increase access to health insurance while also reducing premium costs and enhancing responsiveness to consumer priorities and needs?
Large-scale healthcare reform appears off-the-table for the Biden Administration. Yet, given the impact of the COVID pandemic on people who have lost (or have worried about losing) their employer-based insurance coverage and the intensifying pressure to reduce overall healthcare costs, solutions that increase health insurance access and affordability have become more important than ever. A significant answer to this complex puzzle can be found at the state level.
Enabled by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, state-based marketplaces (SBMs) currently operate in 14 states and the District of Columbia. Another six states operate as SBMs using the federal government’s HealthCare.gov technology platform. Three states, Kentucky, Maine, and New Mexico, will become full SBMs by 2022.
While federal measures to improve insurance access have stalled or been reversed over the past eight years, SBMs have quietly implemented programming modifications for stabilizing local markets that improve the quality and marketability of health insurance offerings to the benefit of consumers.
In Part 2 of our series on marketplace health plan innovations, we examine how SBMs have operated as experimental policy laboratories. They’ve taken their own paths to expand consumer choice, increase access to vital healthcare services, and lower premiums.
JOE wrote THCB with an interesting question that could be an outlier or could be significant:
Do you know of a consulting firm or advisory firm that can assist me in applying for insurance through Covered California? When I applied for insurance through the Covered California website, they gave me a list of places where I can get assistance. The phone numbers go to dead voice mail boxes or don’t work at all. I am willing to pay for assistance from somebody that understands the system.
A THCB reader in California writes in…
“As it happens my husband has medical issues so we know to stay on top of our heath care. Our insurance canceled us after years of paying high premiums. We were happy with the coverage and our doctors. We just did not have maternity or pediatric, dental [care].
We are 64-62, children in their 40s. No need there.
They offered us a policy that was $1750 per month with deductibles and out-of-pocket costs no one would ever reach. We went on Covered California to find a policy. We found one with the same company so we thought our doctors and hospital would be in-network, paid the premium Dec 4, and left for Christmas out of state feeling pretty safe.
When we returned we received a letter from Blue Cross stating that they did not receive our payment. And so our metal anguish starts!
I called, was on hold three hours. The system hung up on me [and] called back. Was on hold two hours with Covered CA. When someone came online we spent another hour trying to locate the application. They said that Covered CA had a glitch in the system that was duplicating people. We had three people on our application that was why Blue cross did not take our payment. They said they fixed it took another payment and promised all would be fine.
Went to get my husband’s medication to find out we were not covered. He had to have the meds. Came home and spent eight hours on the phone between Blue Cross and Covered CA trying to fix it. They told me to pay out of pocket for my husband’s medication until they fixed the problem.
I told them that my husband had a doctor’s appointment on Thursday that we could not postpone. It was with his Cardiologist. They had no idea except to pay-out-of-pocket. Went to the appointment, the doctor said he needed an operation NOW.
We told him about the insurance issues and had to postpone the operation until the next Friday hopefully the insurance would be in force by then…”
If you have questions about the Affordable Care Act or your buying insurance on the federal state exchanges, drop us a a note. We’ll publish the good submissions.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that Covered California, the largest state’s health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, has started releasing to insurance agents throughout the state the names and contact information of tens of thousands of persons who started an application using the state’s online system but failed to complete it.
The Covered California director Peter Lee acknowledges the practice but says that the outreach program still complies with privacy laws and was reviewed by the exchange’s legal counsel. “I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process,” explained Lee.
I am hardly as confident as Covered California’s lawyers apparently were that this practice was legal.
The law requires that disclosures to third parties be necessary and I do not see why Covered California could not have contacted non-completers directly and ask them if they wanted help from an insurance agent rather than disclosing their identity to insurance agents. But even if the practice could be said to be borderline legal, it is difficult to imagine a practice more likely to sabotage enrollment efforts in California — and, since California’s interpretation could be precedent for other states — elsewhere.
For every person unable to complete their application online in California and who will, with the comforting help provided by insurance agents, now want to complete it, there are likely 10 who will be turned off by the cavalier attitude towards privacy exhibited by this government agency. Beyond a violation of ACA privacy safeguards, the action is either a sign of desperation about enrollment figures, even in a state that boasts of its success such as Peter Lee’s California, or monumental stupidity.
If California wanted to create an adverse selection death spiral, it would be difficult to be more effective than, without notice or consent, releasing personally identifiable information to insurance agents.
I’ve read a number of reports in recent days gushing over the progress Covered California is making leading the nation in signing up people for Obamacare.
But, I am having trouble understanding how the numbers should make anyone gush with enthusiasm.
Covered California, the state health insurance exchange, has a goal of enrolling 500,000 to 700,000 subsidy eligible Californians by March 31, 2014.
Covered California just announced that it would proceed with its original plan to cancel 1.1 million existing individual policies (their estimate)––80% of them by December 31. Covered California also just said that 510,000 of them would qualify for a subsidy.
The only place a Californian can buy a policy with a subsidy is on the Covered California state exchange.
So, it would certainly seem that the only way those 510,000 people can continue their coverage and get a subsidy is to sign-up on the California health insurance exchange––80% of them by December 23.
So, if only the canceled policyholders who are subsidy eligible replace their canceled policies Covered California will make the lower end of its entire 2014 enrollment goal. Doesn’t sound like much of a stretch goal for them.
Besides the 1.1 million who have lost their policies because of cancellation, Covered California has estimated that 5.3 million Californians are uninsured and eligible to purchase coverage on the state exchange––about half with subsidies.
California has frequently been cited as an early Affordable Care Act success story with enrollment coming at least closer to projected numbers than in other states. This week’s release of information from Covered California, the state entity organizing enrollment there, shows a mixed picture about the likelihood that the ACA will become a stable source of non-discriminatory relatively inexpensive health insurance in the nation’s most populous state.
A highlight from the report is that 79,891 have at least gotten as far as selecting a plan since enrollment opened on October 1, 2013. That’s better than any other state and better — at least as of the last report — of all the other states combined using the healthcare.gov portal.
And, because, contrary to the wishes of California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, Covered California has decided not to permit those with recently enrolled in underwritten individual health insurance to “uncancel” policies that do not provide Essential Health Benefits, there is the potential to add more people to the Exchange pools than would otherwise be possible.
Additional good news: the pace of enrollment has picked up over the past two weeks.
Still, to date, the 79,891 who have at least selected a plan are only 6% of the 1.3 million that the federal government projected California would enroll through 2014. And the web site in California appears to be working acceptably.
Covered California, the state-run Obamacare health insurance exchange, announced on Wednesday that 59,000 people have so far signed up for health insurance.
Given that California amounts to about 10% of the nation’s population, this would suggest a smooth running federal exchange might well have enabled the Obama administration to have met its national first month goal of 500,000 sign-ups.
But the California enrollment also points to the real challenge Obamacare faces.
In the first month, 84% of the enrollees did not qualify for a subsidy. It has been widely estimated that about half of all potential enrollees will eventually qualify for a subsidy. As Covered California’s chief executive said, “Those are individuals who have been waiting a lifetime for health coverage.”
Covered California is not scheduled to release any age data until next week, but the health plans already know what they are getting. The President of the California health insurance trade association also said yesterday, “It is important for the exchange to achieve a balance in enrollment between the old and the young and the sick and the healthy to allow costs to be spread among all people.”
These Healthcare.gov problems have been a sideshow for Obamacare. The main event will be about whether more than just those who have been “waiting all of their lives” to get guarantee issue health insurance they are sure to make money on will eventually sign-up in adequate numbers.
On the day that Covered California went live — the very moment that Executive Director Peter Lee declared the exchange “open for business” — staff debuted a video celebrating the launch.
The video features photos of cheerful, ethnically diverse people — spliced between scenes of California — holding up signs written in English, Farsi, Korean and other languages that all translate to “open.” (You can watch Lee unveil the video, beginning at the 10:40 mark.)
One week later, Covered California brought the video back; once again, clips of grinning men and women toting signs that read “Ya abrimos” filled time before a webinar on Tuesday where officials shared updates on the exchange’s progress.
The smiling faces and multilingual message illustrate one of California’s major challenges in rolling out the ACA: The state is arguably the most geographically and demographically diverse in the union. Expanding health coverage to seven million uninsured residents will take time and a unique strategy.
But you can also forgive Covered California officials for wanting to remind the public that their exchange is live. During much of the first week, the site often sent a different message.
What Went Wrong
Covered California’s launch was supposed to be different. The state had spent years gearing up for the exchange’s rollout on Oct. 1. It had enlisted dozens of groups to help perform outreach. It had equipped some staffers with “Keep calm and go live” t-shirts.
But a triumphant debut turned out to be an oft-frustrating one. In California, like in most of the nation, most launch day stories didn’t center on the people signing up for coverage through the new exchanges, but on all the people who couldn’t.
Will we have rate shock?
It looks to me like consumers will have a choice when they get to look at the health plans available on the new “Obamacare” health insurance exchanges––rate shock or benefit shock. While there has been lots of focus on the issue of rate shock, I will suggest that just as big an issue may well be benefit shock—that consumers will look at what they will be getting for their premium payments and that they will be surprised at what their out-of-pocket costs will be and before they get anything.
The chart above was prepared by Covered California, the state-run California exchange. This chart does not include specific California plan premiums. What it does show is the net of subsidy cost a single person would pay at the various income points for the second lowest cost Silver plan, as well as the deductibles and co-pays they can expect to see from the standard Silver plan.
While the benefit plan structures may vary a bit from state to state, this gives us a pretty good idea of what consumers can expect in all of the states (click on chart to enlarge). A single person making $22,980 per year would face a premium, net of subsidies, of $121 per month. That’s pretty good.
How will the Affordable Care Act affect my family and me? The answer, like the law itself, is complicated. There will be as many stories about health reform as there are families. But I’m confident that most of these stories will be good.
I say this both as a health-policy wonk, with my own health policy consulting firm, and as a husband and father. My wife and I live in Sacramento, California, and we have a five-year-old son. My wife also happens to have a pre-existing health condition. It’s nothing life-threatening but it’s just serious enough that she has been turned down for regular health insurance coverage. Up to a third of Americans face a similar issue, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Finding affordable, high-quality health coverage for my family has been, even for me, an “expert” in the area of health insurance, very complicated and frustrating. So I work with a health insurance broker to understand my options.
Currently, we have “COBRA” coverage for my wife, a type of health insurance you can get for 18 months after you’ve left employer-sponsored health coverage and that is available regardless of health history. It is expensive, though, costing us $655 per month. Then, since I don’t have an employer to provide coverage, I buy a separate policy in the so-called “individual market” to cover my son and myself. That costs $482 per month.
So before we get to any out-of-pocket medical expenses, we’re shelling out $13,644 per year in health insurance premiums. That’s actually quite a bit less than the average premium cost of $18,430 for people with employer-sponsored insurance (as calculated in the Milliman Medical Index of 2013), but the difference is that people with employer-sponsored insurance don’t have to take out their checkbook and pay the entire bill, since their company covers part of it and takes the rest out of their pay.
Our coverage is good for what we pay, but not extraordinarily so. It’s a pair of similar PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) products through Blue Shield of California that have a fairly broad network of doctors and hospitals.
Will my life get less complicated and frustrating on January 1, 2014, the day that health reform coverage starts? I believe it will.