November 15th marks the start of the second open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, when individuals can sign up for coverage on healthcare.gov. But even before it opens for business, there are signs the website isn’t working correctly for Alaskans.
Most Alaskans who buy individual insurance on healthcare.gov receive a subsidy to help pay for it. But right now, the website is underestimating subsidy amounts for Alaskans. Enroll Alaska noticed the problem as the company tested the site. Joshua Weinstein is president of Northrim Benefits Group, which oversees Enroll Alaska. He says the company will advise customers on their choices, but won’t sign them up until they know it’s working:
“I’m just concerned that if we enroll people with the wrong subsidy amount, how would that get rectified later? So our strategy is to just hold off a little bit… until we know the subsidy calculations are fixed.”
When healthcare.gov launched in October last year, the website wasn’t functional. Over the last several months, the Obama Administration has emphasized the new version of healthcare.gov will be much improved, but not perfect. Susan Johnson is regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She addressed the subsidy glitch at anews conference in Anchorage:
“I was on a phone call with D.C. this morning, they’re working on that, it’s high on their list. I’ll be talking to them again this afternoon and we’ll hope to get that fixed as quickly as we can.”
Johnson couldn’t provide a timeline for when it will be fixed. But in the meantime, the United Way of Anchorage and the Alaska Primary Care Association are preparing to help Alaskans across the state sign up for health insurance. Both groups received navigator grants from the federal government. Sue Brogan, with the United Way, says the organization will hold a lot more public events this time around:
“What we learned last year is that Alaskans sought more of a human touch to find their way through the process. That individuals could make decisions, but what they needed first was a better understanding of the ACA, the ins and outs of health insurance and their coverage options.”
For the first enrollment period, navigators- who help people enroll- were based in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. This time, navigators with the Alaska Primary Care Association will be in Barrow, Bethel, Girdwood, Fairbanks, Juneau, King Cove, Sitka, Skagway, Soldotna, St. Paul, Talkeetna, Unalaska and Willow. The United Way also has three navigators in Anchorage.
And if Enroll Alaska’s experience holds, they will be busy. Joshua Weinstein says he’s been impressed with the level of interest the company has seen:
“At least for the first week, every available appointment is taken. We have five or six licensed agents who are working strictly on the individual market. And then some of our group agents and consultants are also stepping in to fulfill the need.”
The open enrollment period ends February 15. You have to sign up by December 15 for coverage that starts January 1.
During the last open enrollment period, about 16,000 Alaskans signed up for Affordable Care Act insurance.