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Alaskans begin signing up for insurance through exchange

Posted: December 8, 2013 - 9:42pm  |  Updated: December 8, 2013 - 9:46pm

By fits and starts Alaskans are beginning to be enrolled through the new federal health insurance exchange as startup glitches are resolved.

“October was not our best month,” said Susan Johnson, Region 10 director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Johnson was in Anchorage Dec. 3 to give assurances that problems that virtually shut down the federal exchange website when it launched Oct. 1 are being solved.

Johnson appeared with Tyann Boling, chief operating officer of Enroll Alaska, and Jon Zasada, development director at Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, at a Dec. 3 briefing.

Enroll Alaska is a private brokerage service, a subsidiary of Northrim Benefits Group, that is working through the federal exchange. Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center is one of several community health centers where assistance in enrolling is offered, mostly to low-income Alaskans.

Boling said her group enrolled 14 people on Dec. 2, its best day yet. “Two weeks ago that would have been impossible,” she said, given the technical problems in the exchange.

Overall, 86 people have been successfully enrolled by Enroll Alaska through the exchange and an additional 36 outside the exchange, Boling said, Almost all since mid-November, she said.

Melanie Coon, spokeswoman for Premera Blue Cross, one of two companies competing in the Alaska federal exchange, said her company had enrolled 200 Alaskans through the exchange as of Nov. 30. The other company in the exchange is Moda Health. Representatives of Moda Health did not respond to inquiries before press time Dec. 4.

In performance, Boling said the exchange merited “1” on a scale of 10 in October, the first month of its launch, she said, and by November had moved up to a 4. “As of today, we think we’re at 7,” Boling said.

Johnson of HHS agreed 7 might be the right ranking, “but we would like to get it to 10 as quickly as possible,” she said.

Boling said it is now taking about 45 minutes for people to complete the process through Enroll Alaska.

Zasada said his clients at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center have been taking a little longer, taking about an hour with the help of “navigators” trained to provide assistance.

“It’s a complicated process. Health insurance is complicated,” Boling said.

A “subsidy calculator” in the exchange that was nonfunctional at first has been repaired and is functioning smoothly, she said. Also, Enroll Alaska is able to verify within days that a policy it purchased through the exchange for a customer has been accepted by an insurance company, she said.

On a national level, insurance companies have had difficulties getting proper information to issue policies from many applications on the exchanges. Glitches remain in the “back ends” of the exchange, the systems that ensure the insurance company gets all the information it needs to issue a policy and take payment.

Johnson admitted verification of insurance is still a problem for those enrolling through the federal exchange in Alaska. Until the problem is solved, people enrolling should contact insurance companies themselves to verify the policy, she said.

Premera Blue Cross said it is getting information from people applying through the Alaska federal exchange but said the company is verifying data itself, Coon said.

But things are smoother, and Johnson expects a rush as people seek to complete enrollments by Dec. 23 so as to have insurance Jan. 1 and avoid a tax penalty.

“We have made significant progress with the ‘fluidity’ of the exchange (its processing speed) and there are fewer shutdowns. We believe we will be able to handle 50,000 people using the exchange any given time, and up to 300,000 in one day,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, it’s still too early to determine just who is signing up for insurance, Johnson said, and whether the numbers include enough young people, who are healthier and lower-cost, in addition to middle-aged and older people who will have more health problems.

Figures on demographics should be available by mid-December and they will be broken out by state, she said.

Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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