October 24, 2013

Let Mainers sign up for health insurance on our website, insurer says

That would help people avoid the troubled federal site, the company says, as it awaits a response from the U.S.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

One of the two companies in Maine that are selling health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act is asking the Obama administration for permission to let consumers bypass the government’s snarled website and enroll directly on the company’s site.

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Andy Malloy / Staff Photographer In this October 1, 2013 file photo, Emily Brostek, left, assists Jesse Miller of Portland as he learns about health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act. One of the two companies in Maine that are selling health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act is asking the Obama administration for permission to let consumers bypass the government’s snarled website and enroll directly on the company’s site.

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Maine Community Health Options is still awaiting a response from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said company president Kevin Lewis. If the request is approved, he said, consumers interested in enrolling in one of the company’s plans will be able to sidestep healthcare.gov, which has been plagued by an array of technical problems.

“It will be a really helpful way to get people to enroll,” Lewis said Wednesday.

The other insurer selling plans through the marketplace in Maine, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The much-maligned federal website has suffered from numerous glitches since it was launched Oct. 1, the day when individuals could start signing up for subsidized benefits that begin in 2014.

The move by Maine Community Health Options comes on the same day as the Obama administration announced that it will give Americans who buy insurance through the online exchanges an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they incur a penalty, the Washington Post reported.

The announcement means that those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services. The original deadline for enrollment was Feb. 15 under the first year of the Affordable Care Act.

Administration officials said that the rejiggered deadline is unrelated to the many technical problems that have emerged with the HealthCare.gov website in its first three weeks. Instead, they said, it is designed to clear up a timing confusion about the 2010 law, which for the first time requires most Americans to buy health coverage or face a penalty, the Washington Post reported.

Under the law, health plans available through the new federal or state marketplaces will start Jan. 1, but the open-enrollment period runs through the end of March. The law also says that people will be fined only if they do not have coverage for three months in a row. The question has been this: Do people need to be covered by March 31, or merely to have signed up by then, given that insurance policies have a brief lag before they take effect?

The administration made clear Wednesday night that people who buy coverage at any point during the open-enrollment period will not pay a penalty.

It is the latest sign that the health-care law remains a moving target, even after the launch of the federal insurance marketplace, which has faced myriad problems that have frustrated many people trying to sign up for coverage, the Post reported.

The exchange is where people who don’t have health insurance through their employers or other means can buy subsidized insurance. People can sign up by filling out paper applications or calling a toll-free number, but the healthcare.gov website is now the only way Mainers can enroll online.

Federal officials declined to say how they would respond to Maine Community Health Options’ proposal.

Lewis would not say how many Mainers have enrolled in the company’s plans. But he said nearly 7,000 people have visited the enrollment page on the company’s website, spending an average of 12 to 14 minutes there, indicating strong interest in signing up for benefits.

Anthem spokesman Christopher Dugan has also said that interest is high, with the Anthem website receiving “unprecedented call volumes and Web traffic.”

(Continued on page 2)

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