Enrollment in New York insurance exchange meets expectations - The Buffalo News
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Enrollment in New York insurance exchange meets expectations

Enrollment in New York’s health insurance exchange is meeting initial hopes for the program, according to local, state and national health care experts who assessed the latest enrollment data released Tuesday.

The 48,162 people who have signed up for coverage through the state exchange – including hundreds in this region – are a sign that New York’s exchange website is running relatively well and the public is getting enough information about its insurance options, those officials say.

Another 197,000 New Yorkers have been approved for coverage through the exchange but still must select a plan, so enrollment should pick up as it gets closer to the Dec. 15 deadline to enroll in a plan that will take effect Jan. 1.

“We’re certainly pleased with these results,” Donna Frescatore, executive director of NY State of Health, said in an interview.

Enrollment in the exchange hasn’t overwhelmed the insurers offering coverage in Western New York, and it’s too soon to say whether the initial batch of enrolled New Yorkers includes many of the young, healthy uninsured people coveted for the new insurance marketplace.

But in general, experts said, enrollment in New York and the other states operating their own exchanges is matching expectations and far outpacing the widely panned performance of the technologically challenged federal initiative.

“I think what we’re seeing in New York is there’s healthy interest in the plan,” said Heather Howard, program director for the State Health Reform Assistance Network, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The state-based exchanges seem to be running more smoothly, and New York is one example of an exchange that seems to be running better than the federal exchange.”

The state Health Department said Tuesday it could not provide a geographic breakdown for the 48,162 people who enrolled through the state health exchange since it opened for business Oct. 1.

This total, an increase of 11,000 since Oct. 23, does not include the small-business portion of the exchange. The state is providing daily updates of enrollment data to insurance carriers.

HealthNow New York, the largest area insurer, said between 500 and 700 people in Western New York and the Albany area had enrolled in its insurance plans through the exchange. About 70 percent of those enrolled are from this region through BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, said Greg Pasieka, HealthNow’s director of health care reform.

“Right now, I would say it’s on target,” Pasieka said.

Independent Health reported that 420 people have signed up for coverage through the state exchange.

“It’s pretty much in line with our plans and our strategy,” said Nora McGuire, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Independent Health, adding, “They’re selecting a wide variety of the plan options.”

Univera Healthcare, the third-largest insurance provider in the region, declined to provide exchange enrollment data.

“The numbers being reported are still very fluid. It is premature to talk with any certainty about how many enrollees any insurer has received,” said Univera spokesman Peter Kates, noting that enrollees can change their mind throughout the enrollment period.

The federal government has not released official data on the number of Americans who have signed up for health insurance through its HealthCare.gov website, which covers the 36 states that are not operating their own insurance exchanges.

The Wall Street Journal this week put that figure at less than 50,000, citing anonymous sources for the information, a total that leaves enrollment well behind the pace needed to meet the target of 7 million people signing up for private health insurance through the exchanges.

Ten of the 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, that are running their own exchanges have released enrollment data, and they have 185,000 enrollees as of last week, according to Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform for the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Enrollment is going to be a little slow, initially. It’s going to take some time to ramp up,” she said.

New York, Kentucky and Washington State are notable for setting up relatively efficient websites, extensively advertising the exchanges and ensuring people easily can get information about the exchanges and help with enrolling in them, Tolbert said.

New York’s website had some initial difficulties, blamed on high visitor volume, but those problems eased in the weeks following Oct. 1.

Industry experts are waiting for details on who has signed up for insurance through the exchanges.

Common wisdom suggested the people who would rush to enroll in the exchanges would be those who need health insurance, while the young and healthy would wait to sign up – or not enroll at all and opt to pay the penalty included in the health care reform law.

Of the 48,162 New Yorkers who have enrolled, 23,653 – or just less than half – are eligible for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor, either because of the Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act or because they were eligible all along but weren’t previously aware of this.

Frescatore, the exchange’s executive director, said other New York enrollees include people who previously had insurance through the state-subsidized Healthy New York program, which ends Dec. 31; who had costly, direct-pay individual insurance; or who had insurance that is being terminated because it doesn’t meet the minimum standards included in the Affordable Care Act.

It’s not clear how many enrollees in New York or elsewhere were previously uninsured. “That’s one of the unknowns at this point,” Kaiser’s Tolbert said.

Independent Health said one-third of its enrollees are switching over from an existing Independent Health plan, another third aren’t currently insured through Independent Health but were at one time, while the company has no history on the remaining third.

The health care reforms are meant to bring coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans, including the 2.7 million in New York and the estimated 64,000 in Erie and Niagara counties.

The state projected that 615,000 individuals and 450,000 small-business employees would sign up for insurance through the New York exchange within its first 39 months.

Experts expect a boost in enrollment in the weeks before the Dec. 15 deadline to sign up. The open-enrollment deadline for the exchange is March 31, which probably will bring a second spike in enrollment.

“We always expected there would be waves,” said Howard of the State Health Reform Assistance Network.

email: swatson@buffnews.com

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