Will all the White House messages, the stream of breathless Twitter updates on the number of hits and enrollments, and the press hype surrounding opening day send the uninsured public into panic mode? Will they prompt buyers to consider only the premium and click to enroll ASAP? And why not? For weeks the administration, state exchange officials and supporters of the Affordable Care Act have been telling the public how cheap premiums will be — much cheaper than expected.
A Pennsylvania woman told me she was chomping at the bit to enroll because she was eager to dump her policy from Aetna for a cheaper model from Blue Cross. Never mind that she had no idea whether the coverage was better, the same, or worse.
A Nebraska woman heard there was a worksheet to fill out and it had to be completed by October 1. It was first-come-first-served, an agent had told her.
If cheap premiums were the only thing shoppers had to consider, this sense of urgency might be fine. But it’s not. Here’s the problem.
Selecting a health insurance policy is fraught with potential missteps and misunderstandings. As the Nebraska woman told me, “You’re walking into a chasm of uncertainty. It’s like shopping for a used car. You don’t know if you’re getting a lemon,” a lemon you’re stuck with until the next open enrollment.
For consumers, the key advice right now is: don’t rush into anything. Tuesday, October 1st marked the first day of a six-month open enrollment period, not the last. Coverage doesn’t even begin until January 1, 2014, so there’s no need to buy the first policy you see. If you do want coverage on January 1, the deadline for enrolling is Dec 15.
The Affordable Care Act envisions a major expansion of health insurance in America, with some 30 million Americans gaining coverage. That figure includes some 17 million people with low incomes who were to get health insurance via an expansion of Medicaid eligibility. With eligibility raised—from 100 percent of the poverty level to 133 percent—many states will enlarge their Medicaid rolls and pay for it with federal funds, at least for a few years.
But the Supreme Court clouded that part of the vision last week, ruling that states cannot be penalized for refusing the federal money—thus leaving in doubt how many of the projected 17 million poor or near poor citizens will actually get coverage.
In short, the Supreme Court allowed the federal carrot to remain, but took away the stick. Matt Salo, the executive director for the National Association of Medicaid Directors, an organization for those who run state programs, summed it up for The Washington Post: “Prior to the court’s decision, failure to implement this expansion meant you [the states] lost all your Medicaid funding. Now you have a political and financial decision to make: Do you do this?”
New York Times reporter Abby Goodnough’s piece last week about the health insurance exchange in Massachusetts is instructive—especially since other states are trying to set up their own versions of these shopping bazaars where the uninsured can buy coverage if the health reform law eventually takes effect. For the last three years we have been suggesting there’s an untold story in the Bay State about how the law is working, so we were glad to see Goodnough’s reporting and offer a tip of the hat.
Goodnough gets into the subject with a success story: the tale of Peter Kim, who lost his employer-sponsored health insurance in 2005 when he opted for a career as an independent consultant. He found that shopping for insurance in the open market was a complicated affair, and that most plans were too expensive. He eventually chose coverage for catastrophic illness.
Then he discovered his state’s health insurance exchange, called the Connector. After just an hour of research, he found a plan with a monthly premium of only $1,086, a better deal than the coverage he previously had. And ideally, that’s how exchanges should work, Goodnough said.
The trouble, she reports, is that so far the Connector has not drawn enough full-paying customers like Peter Kim.
As Goodnough notes, the exchanges have drawn little journalistic scrutiny so far, despite their key place in health reform. (And, we note, despite the fact that they grew out of initiatives backed by former Massachusetts governor and current presidential candidate Mitt Romney.)