Bracing for New Challenges in Year 2 of Health Care Law
by Reed Abelson, The New York Times
The first year of enrollment under the federal health care law was marred by the troubled start of HealthCare.gov, rampant confusion among consumers and a steep learning curve for insurers and government officials alike.
But insurance executives and managers of the online marketplaces are already girding for the coming open enrollment period, saying they fear it could be even more difficult than the last.
One challenge facing consumers will be wide swings in prices. Some insurers are seeking double-digit price increases, while others are hoping to snare more of the market by lowering premiums for the coming year. At the same time, the Obama administration is expected to try to persuade about five million more people to sign up while also trying to ensure that eight million people who now have coverage renew for another year.
Adding to the complexity is the shorter time frame for choosing a new policy: three months instead of six.
“In some respects, it’s going to be more complicated,” said Kevin Counihan, the former chief executive of Access Health CT, Connecticut’s online marketplace, who was just named as the head of the insurance marketplaces for the federal government. Connecticut’s marketplace was among the most successful state-based exchanges, sharply reducing the number of uninsured in the state. “Part of me thinks that this year is going to make last year look like the good old days.”
No one expects to face last year’s technological hurdles, in which consumers sometimes could not navigate the federal or state websites to buy a policy. HealthCare.gov is running relatively smoothly, and the states have been working to address technical problems with their marketplaces.
“The exchange can’t work worse than it did last year,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, chief executive of Evergreen Health Co-op, an insurer in Maryland, where a faulty state-run marketplace prevented many people from signing up.
But the upheaval in insurance markets, with new carriers entering and the price of plans changing significantly, may make the coming year no easier than the last. While federal rules allow people to renew their coverage automatically for the next year in the same plan, many customers, especially if they were eligible for federal tax credits, will want to resurvey the landscape.
Just as there was an uproar when some people found out last year that their policies had been canceled, individuals this year may be surprised to find that they could be asked to pay much more for the same plan because their carrier is raising its prices or the amount of the federal tax credit they will receive is changing.
People will be renewing at the same time that others are enrolling for the first time, starting a week and a half before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 15. To ensure that they have a new plan by the beginning of the year, those who renew will have to sign up by Dec. 15. Exactly how the renewal process will work has not yet been determined.
“We’re still waiting on the details of the process,” said Paula Steiner, chief strategy officer for Health Care Service Corporation, which offers Blue Cross plans in five states. “We haven’t gone through any testing yet of any changes to the system for 2015.”
“I think there’s a possibility that there’s equal or more confusion this fall,” she said.
Those responsible for the federal marketplace say they are working hard to make the process as easy as possible. “We’re putting in place the simplest path for consumers this year to renew their coverage,” said Andrew Slavitt, principal deputy administrator for Medicare, which oversees the insurance marketplaces. Those who prefer to stay with the same plan will be able to renew their coverage automatically, as many do with employer coverage. People can renew by doing “absolutely nothing,” he said.
The federal online marketplace is being continuously improved, according to Mr. Slavitt, who said the government was updating the website to allow renewals. “We’re in a very different position than we were last year,” he said.
Compared with this year, from the 19 states for which information is available, 30 carriers have requested entrance into the marketplaces for 2015 and 1.6 times more plans are being offered, with prices for 2015 likely to remain varied, as they were the previous year, according to McKinsey & Company’s Center for US Health System Reform, which is analyzing the insurance filings as they become available. Prices are rising about 30 percent for some plans, while decreasing by the same amount for others, depending on the market and policy. “We are definitely seeing a lot of volatility in pricing,” said Erica Hutchins Coe, a McKinsey expert.
Some of the large insurers, like some of the Blue Cross plans, have requested steep increases. Florida Blue, for example, expects to raise its rates by an average of 17.6 percent for 2015. Others, like some of the co-op plans, have been keeping prices low or even reducing rates.
Molina Healthcare, a company that has traditionally offered Medicaid coverage and now sells exchange policies, says its renewal strategy for the coming year is to emphasize that its members need not be concerned that the plan they selected will be more expensive. “One thing you can count on is the rates are flat or down,” said Lisa Rubino, senior vice president of exchanges for Molina.
In California, the state exchange is trying to get a step ahead by allowing people to begin renewing their plans Oct. 1. But anyone who wants to switch plans will still have to wait until Nov. 15, and many individuals may well want to shop around. In the Sacramento area, for example, someone who selected an H.M.O. plan from Anthem for 2014 faces a possible increase of nearly 17 percent, compared with a 2 percent increase for an H.M.O. plan from Kaiser Permanente in the same area.
Consumer advocates and others say nearly everyone with coverage should review their options, as well as whether their federal tax subsidy is likely to shift — either because their income may have changed or because the cost of the benchmark plan used to calculate the tax credit has changed.
Experts like Sabrina Corlette, a policy expert at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, say persuading those who did not sign up for coverage during the last open enrollment period to get coverage for 2015 will also present a significant challenge. People in this group were unaware they could get assistance with the cost of their premiums, decided the coverage was not worth the cost or simply found the process of enrolling too challenging.
“Most people assume in the first year they got the low-lying fruit,” Ms. Corlette said. Insurers and others “do have to widen the net,” she said, targeting hard-to-reach populations with what in the second year will often be “fewer resources and less time.”
Dr. Martin E. Hickey, chief executive of New Mexico Health Connections, a co-op that will rely on low prices to continue to attract members, said it was “a lot easier to retain a consumer than chase a new one.” In his state, many individuals failed to take advantage of the subsidies that reduced the cost of coverage substantially. “We didn’t communicate the affordability,” he said.
Even in California, which enrolled nearly 1.4 million people in its first open enrollment, there is acknowledgment that more effort is needed.
“We have a heavy lift again,” said Dana Howard, a spokesman for the state’s exchange, Covered California.
Tags: Affordable Care Act