Online Obamacare enrollment process works for some in New Hampshire as deadline looms
Maria Bauer of Concord checks her watch then the clock hanging on the wall at the State Employees' Association of New Hampshire after spending a little over an hour being assisted with the state health exchange website by compensation and benefit research specialist Chris Porter during an open session for assistance on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. "I wasn't expecting to do this tonight but I'm so glad I did," Bauer said.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Chris Porter at the State Employees' Association of New Hampshire points out differences among health insurance plans on the New Hampshire state exchange website for Maria Bauer, 23, of Concord during an open session for assistance at the SEA on Tuesday, December 3, 2013.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Between 5 and 6:12 p.m. Tuesday, Maria Bauer of Concord made her first visit to HealthCare.gov, created an account, entered her estimated income, received a tax credit and selected health insurance for next year.
After attending one seminar where someone told her coverage would likely cost her thousands, she made a few phone calls and was referred to an open enrollment session Tuesday night with certified application counselors from the State Employees’ Association.
Bauer, 23, is a full-time student at Franklin Pierce University and delivers food for Meals on Wheels. She’s covered under her mother’s health insurance this year, but next year, her mother will be cutting back her hours and won’t have insurance anymore.
She walked out with coverage that will cost her about $24 a month.
“I wasn’t expecting to do this tonight at all,” she said afterward. “I’m so happy we did. I didn’t want to do it online or over the phone. This is intimidating stuff. It’s health insurance, it’s something that will affect me all of the next year. That’s scary, but this went so smoothly.”
According to reports yesterday, as many as 155,000 people have signed up for health insurance through the federal insurance exchange website, which is the only portal to subsidized coverage in 36 states.
Only 26,000 of them signed up in the entire month of October – 269 of them in New Hampshire.
As many as 29,000 signed up in the first two days of December, after the federal government announced it had met deadlines to fix the glitch-filled site, according to a report on Politico.
Sixteen states are operating their own exchanges, and up-to-date data about their enrollment wasn’t available yesterday. Previously, the state exchanges had been outperforming the federal site in enrollment, but some, such as Oregon and Maryland, were also plagued by technical problems.
New Hampshire is one of seven states using the federal site but providing some state oversight, particularly in the area of consumer education.
Another glitch has affected insurance companies on the other side of the enrollment equation: The program sometimes fails to notify companies of newly enrolled customers, or includes inaccurate information in the application, according to the Washington Post.
The open enrollment session Tuesday was held by the state employees union and was open to anyone who wanted help. Chris Porter, who helped Bauer through the process, is the compensation and benefit research specialist for the union by day, and got special training because the union volunteered as a certified application counseling organization.
Organizations that offer certified application counselors do so without funding from the state or federal government, but agree to put staff through federal and state training.
For Bauer and Porter, the entire process took a little more than an hour.
It took them about 20 minutes to create an account, though a few weeks ago, that was as far as Porter could get. The screen would freeze when it was time to create and answer security questions, he said.
An additional 15 minutes later, they had finished the eligibility process and opened a digital letter detailing Bauer’s tax credit.
Last week, Porter could help people finish their applications, but the site wouldn’t deliver the letter, so they couldn’t tell whether they were eligible for a credit or how much plans would actually cost them out of pocket, he said.
After narrowing her search to a handful of plans from Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, the only insurer selling plans on the exchange for New Hampshire, Bauer searched for her doctors on the list of participating providers.
Anthem limited the network of providers for exchange plans, a step the company said kept premium costs down.
Bauer’s doctor at Epsom Family Medicine isn’t part of the network, but even that couldn’t dampen Bauer’s spirits.
She planned to call her doctor to follow up this week, in case they are on the network, and to find out if she can get a substitute for a prescription that didn’t appear to be covered by Anthem’s formulary list.
“There will be some changes. You roll with the punches,” she said.
During the two-hour open enrollment session, a married couple worked with another counselor. Porter said he had appointments during the day yesterday, too.
Two other types of guides are available for people looking for help on the exchange: navigators and assisters.
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, one of two organizations acting as a federally funded navigator in the state, has held 27 events over the past eight weeks and provided one-on-one assistance for 1,025 consumers, though not all enrolled in an insurance plan during their appointment with the navigator, said policy adviser Jennifer Frizzell.
“We have a lot of people who left the appointment having narrowed down the number of plans and either had a follow-up appointment or called back to tell the navigator they went online using the profile they had set up together and hit send themselves,” Frizzell said.
“But we feel the experience we’ve had so far is much more than the numbers. . . . Despite the immense amount of coverage the glitches have gotten, as we get closer to the deadline of getting coverage for Jan. 1, we’ve seen an increasing amount of people paying attention and attending outreach events.”
A study done last month showed in all, the state needed about 38 full-time assisters spread across 10 counties in addition to the navigators from Planned Parenthood and the Bi-State Primary Care Association.
Nine of them have been hired so far, said Aaron Holman, a consultant with the Public Consulting Group, which is administering the federal grant that pays the assisters.
People have until Dec. 23 to sign up for a plan in order to get coverage on Jan. 1, but won’t face a tax penalty for not having insurance as long as they sign up by March 15.
With that in mind, Holman, Frizzell and other officials leading the enrollment efforts said they were focusing staff on educating consumers first, and aren’t watching the numbers of enrolled people too closely yet.
“In a perfect world, we’d have 38 people out cranking as much as we can right now . . . but from a strategy side we have to decide the balance of time we want folks working on general education and outreach, answering questions about how the exchange works, with how much time do we force folks to sit in a chair behind a computer registering people,” Holman said.
“The 23rd is a big day, but the last thing we want is to have people scurry and go crazy to get applications in there and not be prepared to make the wisest choice possible for themselves. . . . We’re not going to beat our people up if they’re only getting two registrations a day. Consumer behavior will dictate when folks are ready, and that’s when we’ll get butts in chairs to push that priority.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)