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Tag: Robert Laszewski

Trying To Make Sense of the Covered California Numbers

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.

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The Real Reason You May Not Be Able to Keep Your Doctor Under the New Healthcare Law


Here is what the President said at the American Medical Association Meeting in July, 2009––and likely lots more times:

“No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, your will keep your health plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what. My view is that health care reform should be guided by a simple principle: fix what’s broken and build on what works.”

We have all heard this repeated many times before in recent weeks. But with the front-page story in the Washington Post yesterday, “Health Insurers Limit Choices to Keep Costs Down,” it’s as if somebody rang a new bell this time focused on the “you will keep your doctor” part.

It’s not like we haven’t been talking about more narrow networks becoming a staple of the new health insurance exchanges.

It is as if some of this stuff is just starting to sink in.

Why the limited networks?

In the old health insurance market, insurers competed for business through price and plan design. Network size has historically been a minor factor with consumers and employer plan sponsors expecting to be able to use about any doctor or hospital, especially those with the best reputations.

But with the Affordable Care Act, health plans lost two of their historically big plan pricing variables; medical underwriting and plan design.

Under Obamacare, insurers can no longer underwrite, or exclude people, to keep the cost of their individual market health insurance plans down––a good thing.

Under Obamacare, insurers can no longer offer a wide variety of health insurance products in the individual health market––a good thing when it gets rid of the worst of the health plans out there but not such a good thing when it gets rid of the many policies people could choose and have liked and are now mad about losing. Now, all health plans have to fit into four strict boxes: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. And, these boxes can only differ by out-of-pocket costs––not benefits.

So, if a health plan can no longer vary its benefit choices, how can it distinguish itself on price?

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The Next Shoe to Drop: Small Group Health Insurance Cancellations

Obamacare is impacting the small group insurance market in many of the same ways as the individual health insurance market. While employers with less than 50 workers don’t have to provide coverage, if they do they are required to comply with the same essential benefit mandates, age rating changes, and pre-existing condition reforms the individual market faces.

That means essentially all small group policies cannot continue as they are––they have to be discontinued.

What makes things a bit easier, if not any less expensive, is that small employers typically have health insurance brokers to run interference for them and help them through this change where individual consumers often get that dreaded cancellation letter telling them they will not have health insurance after a certain date if they do not act quickly in what is a confusing marketplace in the best of times.

The first small group renewals are now occurring––the January 1 renewals that typically have to be delivered during the month of November under state law.

Many employers are facing significant changes in order to comply with Obamacare and therefore price increases. One Maryland broker I spoke to this week has 90 small group accounts and he reports his smallest increase was 15%, his largest was 69%, and most are in the 30% – 40% range.

(By comparison, Mercer just announced the average large employer health care cost increase for 2014 will be 5.2%, meaning small groups could have reasonably expected an increase under 10% without Obamacare.) The biggest rate increases are generally going to those employers with the youngest groups the most impacted by the new “age compression” rules.

Does this mean these small employers’ coverage has been outright cancelled and they will now send their workers to the exchanges, as I have heard some commentators argue?

No, at least not anytime soon.

But that does not mean that lots of these small employers aren’t angry and confused.

What are these small employers doing?

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Better But Nowhere Near Good Enough

I can provide you with an Obamacare federal exchange rollout update from two decidedly different perspectives:

  1. The website is working much better with enrollment increasing at least three-fold over just a few weeks ago with backroom error rates considerably improved; or
  2. The enrollment, to give you a general sense of what’s happening, for a health plan that might have to sign-up 100,000 people in order to get their share of the 7 million Obama administration’s national enrollment objective, has grown from perhaps 10-15 enrollments a day a few weeks ago to 40-50 a day now. If this new higher trend continues, such a plan would sign up only another 12,000 people toward the 100,000 objective by March 31. Backroom error rates being committed by Healthcare.gov, when enrollment data are transmitted to the health plans, are still far too high to transition to high volume processing without serious customer service issues.

So, pick your perspective. Most importantly, Healthcare.gov is not ready for what could come in just two weeks when, between December 1 and December 15, everyone expects massive pressure on the federal Obamacare enrollment and administration site so people can get coverage by January 1.

My independent survey of health plans also matches comments by CMS Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao today at a House hearing that 30% to 40% of the IT systems needed to support Obamacare still must be built. He also said that, “We [CMS] still need to build the payments systems to make the [subsidy] payments [to the health plans].”

I have been hearing reports from plans that CMS has said that the enrollee subsidy information was going to be mailed to the plans but I frankly didn’t believe it. Chao went on to say that other backroom functions, including accounting systems, were not complete.

That would be like a bank starting business and attracting customers without finishing their ability to send their customers’ monthly statements.

Chao’s comments just underscore the risk for considerable backroom and therefore customer service issues when volume picks up.

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What Could Have Been and What Still Has To Happen

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.
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A Plan B For Healthcare.gov?



It is now becoming clear that the Obama administration will not have Health.care.gov fixed by December 1 so hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of people will be able to smoothly enroll by January 1.

Why do I say that? Look at this from the administration spokesperson’s daily Healthcare.gov progress report on Friday:

Essentially what is happening is people [those working on the fixes] are going through the entire process. As we have fixed certain pieces of functionality, like the account creation process, we’re seeing volume go further down the application. We’re identifying new issues that we need to be in a position to troubleshoot.

Does that sound like the kind of report you would expect if they were on track to fix this in less than three weeks? Their biggest problem is that they admittedly don’t know what they don’t know.

The spokesperson also reiterated the administration intends to have Obamacare’s computer system “functioning smoothly for the vast majority of users” by the end of the month.

It’s time for the Obama administration to get real.

It takes months to properly test a complex data system like this. Two things are obvious:

  1. When they launched on October 1, very little of the testing had been completed.
  2. They are now in the midst of that many months long testing and fixing period. It is clear they don’t have a few weeks of work left; they have months of work left.Continue reading…

The Latest Mystery: What Is Happening to All Those Paper Applications?

Enrollments continue to trickle in. Health plans, with the kind of market share that would have to sign-up 100,000 to 200,000 people for the administration to hit its goal of 7 million people, are generally reporting they have enrolled only about 100 – 200 people over the first 35 days via Healthcare.gov.

Does this mean no one wants to sign-up? No. People can argue about whether we will see the administration hit their goal of seven million or we will end up getting two or three million relatively sicker people for all of the problems Obamacare has faced. But, undoubtedly millions of people, including all of those people who just got cancellation notices, do want to see what they can get for what cost and make a decision about signing up. But they can’t because they aren’t able get through the entire Healthcare.gov website.

As I have said before, Healthcare.gov, because of its many problems, is in de facto shutdown because virtually no one is able to really use it.

Why doesn’t the administration just tell people the site is still too frustrating for people to waste their time on until it is fixed? Instead, the administration says it is getting better and people should keep trying to make it through the gauntlet. More, they are telling them to call the 800 number to fill out a paper application.

If it is better, it is still not better enough for more than a very small trickle to make it through each day.

Many states have literally dozens of complex health plan choices on the federal exchange––each insurance company on the various exchanges is likely offering the four different plans. I find it hard to understand how a consumer can get any real sense of the options over the phone much more be able to understand which plans cover which doctors and hospitals. People really need to see the options on their computer or on the computer of a navigator or an insurance agent to understand what is available and how it fits their needs.

And, as ABC and NBC reported yesterday evening, the paper applications ultimately have to go through the Healthcare.gov system anyway. One thing is crystal clear from the health plans meager enrollment to date; the insurance companies are not getting these “thousands” of paper applications. Where are they sitting?

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Mr. President, I Like My Health Insurance. I’d Like to Keep It. Can You Please Help Me Out?

How many times have I talked about rate shock, the millions of people who would be getting cancellation letters from their current health plan, and the problem of people having to put up with more narrow networks?

And, how many times have those predictions been met by push back and spin: Today’s policies are just junk and people will be better off finding lower cost health insurance under Obamacare.

I have been in this business for 40 years. I know junk health insurance when I see it and I know “Cadillac” health insurance when I see it.

Right now I have “Cadillac” health insurance. I can access every provider in the national Blue Cross network––about every doc and hospital in America––without a referral and without higher deductibles and co-pays. I value that given my travels and my belief that who your provider is makes a big difference. Want to go to Mayo? No problem. Want to go to the Cleveland Clinic? No problem. Need to get to Queens in Honolulu? No problem.

So, I get this letter from my health plan. It says I can’t keep my current coverage because my plan isn’t good enough under Obamacare rules. It tells me to go to the exchange or their website and pick a new plan before January 1 or I will lose coverage.

First, the best I can get in a Blue Cross network plan are HMOs or HMO/Point-of-Service plans. In the core network those plans offer, I would have to go to fewer providers than I can go to now in the MD/DC/VA market. And, the core network has no providers beyond my area. I can go to the broader Blues network but only if I pay another big deductible for out-of-network coverage.

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Should the Obamacare Exchanges Be Shut Down?

My sense is that the biggest reason Obamacare is now in trouble is because of the top-secret way in which the administration has handled the rollout. If they had developed the computer system in a transparent way, the marketplace would have told them long ago this would not work.

No one outside the inner circle at the Department of Health and Human Services has any idea what’s really going on behind the Wizard’s curtain. Hasn’t for months. Doesn’t now.

So any technical advice any of us could give would be, to say the least, uninformed.

If I were on the inside, and it were up to me, the first thing I would do is bring in a group of heavyweight information technology experts to tell me just what was really going on. The administration cannot trust the people who have been working on this because they told them to launch this mess on October 1 and almost three weeks in there has been no improvement on the website or in the backroom––they no longer have credibility.

I would ask those experts to very quickly answer three questions:

  1. Can this thing be fixed on the fly––as the administration appears to be trying to do?
  2. If it can’t be fixed on the fly––and three weeks into this that sure looks doubtful––then can it be taken down for one or two months with a high degree of confidence it can be brought back up in time to enroll people sooner rather than later?
  3. If the first two options are not possible, just how long will the computer system have to be shutdown before Obamacare can be launched in a way that there can be confidence it will work smoothly?

Then I would take their advice.

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How Identity Verification Caused Chaos on the State and Federal Exchanges

We may be getting a better idea why the federal exchange and so many state exchanges aren’t working.

An article in Saturday’s Baltimore Sun, regarding Maryland’s problems, provides insight I have not seen elsewhere:

Problems began immediately after the exchange launched Tuesday, as people tried to create accounts and log onto the site.

State officials blamed the account creation process, in which people were routed to a federal questionnaire to verify their identity. The system, they said, became overwhelmed when so many people tried to access it.

So, it appears all of the exchanges are facing the same bottleneck at the federal level–the identity verification software the feds are running for themselves and the state exchanges.

Then the Sun article provided more insight:

Requiring people to create accounts to access the system may be one of the problems, said Jonathan Wu, co-founder of consumer finance website ValuePenguin, who has a computer science background. Some states, including Kentucky [which as been about the only state running well], let people browse insurance plans without an account, which was only needed to purchase insurance. Kentucky did not have as big a backlog, he said.

“It’s kind of an architectural and software issue,” Wu said. “You are not accounting for how people want to use the system.”

With personal accounts, the computer system has to work harder, storing information about everyone who accesses the website, he said. It also has to repeatedly confirm the identity of the person, which also can bog down the system, Wu said. He noted that all the functions on the website that don’t require an account have run smoothly.

“It has to match your account every step you make,” Wu said. “This causes extra overhead.”

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