What a difference a year makes. The first week of 2015 enrollment in the federal health insurance marketplace through healthcare.gov was busy and free of major technical problems, according to those who help people enroll in South Carolina.
Last year, insurance agents and federally funded navigators were sitting around their computers, hoping to get into the balky website in the first few weeks after it went online on Oct. 1. When they were able to log in, the system moved at a snail’s pace. The rollout was viewed as a disaster for the Obama administration and the early implementation of the insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
This year, the problem has been finding enough time to help the early rush of people who want to either shop for the best policy or go ahead and enroll. At Richland Library, the appointments for enrollment help are booked through the end of November.
“We have seen a lot of our previous customers come back for help renewing or choosing a new plan, but we have seen even more new people,” said Lee Patterson, who is directing the library’s enrollment effort. She estimated about 60 percent of those seeking help are new to the marketplace.
Patterson said people are turning to the library in part because some other local groups aren’t as involved in enrollment efforts as last year. “It may (also) be that because the program isn’t so new anymore, that people feel comfortable seeing what their options are,” Patterson said. “Either way, we have started out with a bang.”
Some polls have indicated many who purchased policies last year won’t re-enroll, frustrated by unexpected deductible and out-of-pocket expenses. Also, enrollment is expected to be affected by court challenges of the legality of tax subsidies in states such as South Carolina that didn’t set up their own insurance exchanges.
If the U.S. Supreme Court decides those subsidies aren’t legal, it’s unclear what will happen for the nearly 90 percent of policies in South Carolina that are subsidized.
If the first week of the marketplace in South Carolina is any indication, people still are interested in getting health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. Enrollment began Nov. 15 and continues through Feb. 15, though people need to apply by about Dec. 15 to be covered at the start of 2015.
“Everything seems to be moving along well,” said Shelli Quenga, who is directing the Palmetto Project’s statewide navigator program. She said most of those enrolling through the nonprofit group are new to the federal insurance marketplace.
She pointed to an enrollment effort for employees of Brabham Oil, a Bamberg-based company that owns convenience stores and sandwich and pizza franchises throughout the Lowcountry. The company paid for the employees’ time to speak with their group insurance broker for full-time employees and navigators from Palmetto Project for part-time employees.
Teresa Hannibal, human resources director at Brabham Oil, said about half of the company’s employees work part time and don’t qualify for the company’s health insurance policy. Brabham’s insurance provider recommended the company stage an event to help their part-time employees find out about the federal marketplace plans.
“We were trying to protect them in any way we could,” Hannibal said. “It’s all about educating people about what’s out there.”
The Palmetto Project helped some employees enroll for subsized federal marketplace policies as well as apply for Medicaid for their children. Quenga envisioned the Brabham Oil event as a model for other companies with many part-time workers. It also marked a major step forward for the Palmetto Project’s enrollment effort.
“We didn't do anything like that last year,” Quenga said.
BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina also had a busy first week of enrollment online, at its stand-alone stores and at its mobile enrollment vehicles. The insurance giant noticed a difference in inquiries.
“Last year at this time, aside from the issues with the healthcare.gov website, most people were gathering information rather than purchasing health insurance,” said company spokeswoman Patti Embry-Tautenhan. “This year, our experience is that people are still asking questions and collecting information, but many more people are purchasing insurance.”