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Feds expect more consumer choice in health reform insurance marketplace

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Above image credit: George Mayer, a retired software developer, helped a caller as a volunteer health-reform “navigator” at a Shepherd’s Center office in Kansas City, Mo. (January 2014 file photo by Mike Sherry/The Hale Center for Journalism)

Consumers in Missouri and Kansas should see more companies offering coverage through the health insurance marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, according to preliminary estimates released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A report issued by the department, released in advance of the open enrollment period scheduled to run from mid-November through mid-February, estimates that the number of companies issuing policies in Missouri should double to eight. The report said Kansas should increase to five from four.

Nationwide, the department projected a 25 percent increase in the number of companies expected to offer plans through the marketplace, for a total of 77 new entrants.

“When consumers have more choices, we all benefit,” HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement.  “In terms of affordability, access, and quality, today’s news is very encouraging.  It’s a real sign that the Affordable Care Act is working.”

In Missouri and Kansas, Coventry and Blue Cross and Blue Shield are currently offering policies through different business entities.

The Kansas Insurance Department said the additional participant in Kansas is a division of Blue Cross.

The Missouri Insurance Department referred inquiries to HHS. A spokesperson for HHS said that, because issuer data used for 2015 was preliminary, the department did not conduct any analysis of issuer participation at the local level.

According to federal figures, 7.3 million Americans obtained marketplace coverage through mid-August. The signups include nearly 210,000 consumers combined in Missouri and Kansas.

Technical glitches plagued the startup of the online marketplaces when they launched last fall.

UnitedHealthcare is a notable new entrant to the marketplace, said Heather H. Howard, director of the State Health Reform Assistance Network at Princeton University, which provides technical assistance to states to maximize coverage expansion under the health reform law.

It is “certainly a sign of the health of the law that it is more attractive to more carriers,” she said.

In the first signup period, she said, enrollees were more likely to be married, uninsured for at least two years and diagnosed with a chronic condition.

The challenge for enrollment advocates in the next signup period, she said, will be motivating consumers who have a less pressing need for health insurance.

One potential motivator, she said, is that the penalty for not having health insurance is scheduled to triple to $325.

On the other hand, Howard said, the signup period is shorter during potentially cold weather. “Getting people to enroll in the winter months is going to be harder,” she said.

And there’s no guarantee that re-enrolling will be straightforward for people who have already signed up, Howard notes. With new plan options and perhaps changed life circumstances, Howard said, re-enrollment could be just as complicated as the first time around.

She said insurers will likely begin sending notices to consumers in late October.

Howard also anticipates a lot of scrutiny about how the government performs in this second enrollment period after the problems following the program’s launch.

“Last year it was, could you get the business up and running? and clearly it stalled in many places,” she said. “So this year, from an exchange perspective, is the business up and running? Are you improving the consumer experience? And that first day will be important because it is going to set the tone for open enrollment.”

Major Funding for Health coverage on KCPT provided by Assurant Employee Benefits and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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