The 7.5 Million Obamacare Number Only Part Of The Story

Want to know how many people have signed up for private insurance under Obamacare? Like the law itself, the answer is exceedingly complicated. The administration is tracking the number of plans purchased on healthcare.gov and on the state exchanges. But the federal government isn’t counting the number of people buying plans directly from insurance carriers.

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When insurance broker Joshua Weinstein wanted to sign someone up for health insurance this year, he asked one key question – would they qualify for a federal subsidy? If the client didn’t, he steered them away from healthcare.gov:

“If you can avoid that whole level of bureaucracy and get a good plan, not necessarily at a good price, but at the same price and they’re not subsidy eligible, we’re going off the marketplace,” Weinstein said.

One of those clients is Oliver Korshin, a doctor who lives in Anchorage. Weinstein and Korshin worked together to enroll Korshin’s wife Rachel in a new health plan. They didn’t qualify for a subsidy so they went directly to Premera Alaska, says Korshin.

“The actual enrolling wasn’t difficult at all,” Korshin said.

Weinstein, their broker, estimates about 15 percent of his clients are signing up for insurance outside the exchanges. He says enrolling directly is easier because insurers don’t have to deal with the financial information required on healthcare.gov.

“It’s basically gathering demographic information, name, address, phone number, social security number, which plan do you want, sign up for how you want to pay your bill, monthly via statement or auto-draft and sign and off you go,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein does counsel people who are close to qualifying for a subsidy, to sign up on healthcare.gov, in case their income fluctuates during the year.

Alaska’s two main insurers report 1/5th of their customers bought plans directly from them. But these customers aren’t being counted by the Obama administration.

“That’s the big mystery,” Larry Levitt, an insurance expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation, said.

Levitt says there’s a lot of focus on the 7.5 million people who signed up through the 14 state exchanges or healthcare.gov. But he says the off-exchange number is just as essential to gauge how well the law is working:

“Oh I think it’s quite important,” Levitt said. “I think it’s probably the case that there are more people insured in the individual market off the exchange than on the exchange right now.”

In fact, a new survey from the RAND Corporation estimates 7.8 million people nationwide bought health insurance this year directly from a carrier.

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Annie Feidt is the Editor and Producer of Alaska News Nightly, and is also a frequent contributor to the show. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace.

Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49thstate just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon.

afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie