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Health Insurance Marketplace Launches In Alaska

By | October 1, 2013

Alaska’s federally run health insurance Marketplace officially launched on Oct. 1 as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Starting Jan. 1, most people in the country will be required to have insurance and the Marketplace will allow them to shop for insurance and qualify for subsidies to help pay for it.

Large amounts of website traffic and other glitches have made it impossible to sign up for insurance on the site so far today, but community advocates for the law are urging patience.

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Samantha Longacre sat down with three people early this morning at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Clinic. They were all interested in learning more about their options for buying coverage on Alaska’s Marketplace. But Longacre – a Marketplace enrollment specialist – says none of the potential applicants got very far beyond logging into healthcare.gov.

“And then the first part is to set up an account, just like any other online resource, we could get through step one and step two and kind of ran into glitches,” Longacre said.

Anchorage Neighborhood Health Clinic has a lot to gain from the marketplace. According to development director Jon Zasada, nearly half of the clinic’s patients are uninsured. He’s hoping to sign up 20 percent of those uninsured patients, about 1,000 people, by March 31, when the open enrollment period closes. Zasada says the marketplace is a huge opportunity for community health centers.

“Anyone that we can add to our patient ranks with insurance just makes our job of ensuring care to everyone in the community a whole lot easier,” he said.

Zasada and Longacre were attending a news conference celebrating the marketplace launch at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. It attracted a glass-half-full kind of crowd. ANTHC’s Valerie Davidson said a few hiccups on the first day were to be expected.

“I remember the very first day the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend program started online enrollment, and let me tell you, there were a few glitches that day,” Davidson said. “But as the system rolled out and people became more comfortable, folks were able to navigate that system and were able to apply for their permanent fund dividends in time to meet the deadline.”

Joan Fisher

Joan Fisher is United Way’s lead navigator for the marketplace. Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Enroll Alaska, a company that has two dozen insurance agents ready to help people enroll, had a backlog by the afternoon of about 400 Alaskans who wanted help but couldn’t get it because of the website problems. The federal government estimates about 140,000 Alaskans are uninsured, with nearly half qualifying for subsidies to purchase insurance in the Marketplace. Susan Johnson is the Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She says there will be plenty of time to sign up.

“We want people to relax into all this newness because change is hard, this is a new language for most don’t hurry up and get it over with like a shot or something, enjoy the shopping,” Johnson said. “Come in, take a look, make sure you get the help you need, talk to people, get informed, think about it, weigh your decisions, don’t rush today, plenty of time.”

When I logged into to healthcare.gov around 1 in the afternoon and clicked “apply now” a banner appeared across the page that read, “We have a lot of visitors on our site right now and we’re working to make your experience here better. Thanks for your patience!”

That’s the same message Joan Fisher found when she signed onto the site this morning. Fisher is the United Way’s lead navigator for the marketplace.

“I think this is history making. I think it’s pretty cool,” Fisher said.

Fisher is setting up a small office on the first floor of Providence Hospital in Anchorage where she’ll be able to help sign people up for insurance, but with the healthcare.gov website not working properly and several media interviews, things were off to a slow start.

“I haven’t even gotten on my computer yet because I haven’t been authorized by Providence,” Fisher said.

Fisher and her fellow navigators would like to sign up thousands of Alaskans for insurance in the next six months, but she’s content to settle in for the long haul rather than sprint out of the Oct. 1 starting gate.

Fisher says anyone who wants the process to go smoothly should make an appointment with her in a few weeks.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via email, podcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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