Idaho exchange reports progress despite slowdowns
BOISE – Idaho’s new health insurance exchange still is seeing frustrating computer system delays, but it’s accomplishing its other goals: In-state people are taking the calls from consumers, the state’s Department of Insurance is regulating the plans offered, and buyers are being referred to Idaho insurance agents and brokers.
Plus, Idahoans should save millions over the coming year, compared to the cost of letting the federal government run its exchange. That’s because buyers of plans on federally run exchanges pay a 3.5 percent fee to cover the cost of the exchange; Idaho’s fee is just 1.5 percent.
“We do have confidence we can do this cheaper than the feds can,” Amy Dowd, executive director of YourHealthIdaho.org, told state lawmakers on Monday.
No enrollment numbers are out yet, but Dowd said if 50,000 insurance plans are sold in the exchange’s first year, Idahoans would save $2.9 million. If projections for up to 121,000 new enrollees are met, their savings would hit $7 million.
Interest has been strong, she reported, with 18,600 Idahoans visiting the website on its opening day and 7,000 each on the two following days. Heavier than expected web traffic nationwide has led to big slowdowns on the federal enrollment site, Dowd said, “which are still apparent of this morning – and that’s frustrating.”
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said it’s frustrating that the state is having to use the federal government’s technology platform for its first year – including the federal website that’s the source of the computer delays. But he said he was “very encouraged by the differences” between Idaho’s operation and a federally run exchange.
Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “I think it’s probably too early to know how it’s going. … I’m still pretty skeptical of the whole thing.”
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, noted that Idaho isn’t having to pay anything for its temporary use of the federal website, a deal negotiated by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. The move came because lawmakers approved the state exchange too late for a new, Idaho-only online enrollment system to be up and running by the start of enrollment this month.
The state plans to have its own technology platform up and running by Oct. 15, 2014; a request for proposals from prospective vendors was issued Sept. 25.
“We have a lot of vendors that are interested,” Dowd said.
Under the national health care law known variously as the Affordable Care Act and as “Obamacare,” states had to either open online exchanges to allow uninsured people to shop for insurance plans and access new federal subsidies by Oct. 1, or let the feds handle that function for them. Both Idaho and Washington opted for their own exchanges, but Idaho just made that decision this year, creating a tight timeline and prompting it to use the federal enrollment website for its first year, while setting up its own sales, outreach and regulatory systems.
Idaho is now being classified as a “supported state-based” exchange, Joy Wilson, director of health and human services policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the Legislature’s joint Health Care Task Force. New Mexico is the only other state in that category, which is considered a subset of state-based exchanges. Twenty-six states are letting the federal government run their exchanges; six have chosen a partnership with the feds.
Wilson also reported that initial comparisons show Idaho’s premium rates are coming in below average. For example, for a 27-year-old, before any tax credits, who chooses the lowest “bronze” level benefit plan, the average premium among 36 states that were compared was $163 a month; Idaho’s rate is $150.
Dowd told lawmakers that Idaho’s exchange is not spending any state money. A $385,000 loan to the exchange from the state Department of Health and Welfare was repaid in full on Sept. 25, she said. A $20.4 million federal grant has funded Idaho’s operation initially; a second, $50 million grant application has been submitted, to set up the new technology platform and carry the exchange through 2015. By Jan. 1, 2016, it must be self-supporting from its fees, Dowd said.
Idaho’s exchange will begin a big advertising push in late October; Dowd said it was planned for well after the Oct. 1 enrollment start “to make sure that the marketplace was up.”
For now, she said, “It’s spotty. Some people can get in, some people go to the holding queue and decide not to wait.” She said she tested the system herself over the weekend, spending an hour to answer all the questions. “Then the system was down when I got to the end and I couldn’t see the plans, so it told me to come back.”
Cameron, an insurance agent, said people in his office were unsuccessful in trying to access the system last week, until a Spanish-speaking employee succeeded in getting through on the Spanish-language portion of the site.
Dowd reported that 450 Idaho insurance agents or brokers have been certified to sell health plans on YourHealthIdaho.org. Plus, 120 in-person assisters around the state can help people navigate the system and find out if they qualify for subsidies. Ten contracted employees at a Boise call center are taking calls at a toll-free number, 855-YH-Idaho, or (855) 944-3246.