Smoother rollout of federally run insurance marketplace expected in Alaska

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Officials are expecting a much smoother rollout of the federally run online insurance marketplace than during last year's initial open enrollment.

Enroll Alaska, a broker that was established to help people sign up for private health insurance, is not expecting the same technological glitches that plagued the site after it launched in October 2013. Enroll Alaska went into the first enrollment period with a goal of signing up tens of thousands Alaskans, but it wound up enrolling only a fraction of that goal.

Joshua Weinstein, president of Northrim Benefits Group, said Enroll Alaska has continued enrolling individuals in policies since the first enrollment period closed earlier this year, through qualifying life events like marriages or births. The broker has watched as the site has improved and provided feedback on how to make it work better, he said. Enroll Alaska is a division of Northrim Benefits Group.

One bit of unchartered territory with the new open enrollment period that starts on Saturday will be the renewal process, Weinstein said. People who bought plans last year can be automatically renewed, but he said those plans might not be right for them anymore.

He recommends that consumers consider their options and update the information about their income, which could affect whether they receive federal subsidies to help pay for their plans.

Open enrollment is set to run from Saturday through Feb. 15. Those who don't get coverage face a penalty. People do not have to go through a broker and can sign up on their own.

Two providers offer plans on Alaska's exchange — Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield and Moda Health. Alaska's Division of Insurance has approved rate increases for the coming year for those companies ranging from 22 percent to 29 percent across all plans for Moda and 35 percent to 40 percent for Premera, citing factors such as the relatively small market, which has to support its claims, and high claims in the first half of 2014. The division was working to finalize rates for insurers not on the exchange.

It's reasonable to think that people might be more open to looking at plans on the exchange with the website working better, particularly those who are eligible for subsidies, Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon said Thursday. The company also sees a potential in new customers who didn't enroll last year or had extended prior plans, she said.

"We have a strong focus on member retention since our members will receive notices this week about rate increases as a result of the risk profile of our membership," Coon said in an email.

Premera has urged the state to create a supplemental reinsurance program to help stabilize the market and spread high medical costs across the entire insured market.

Cherise Fowler, outreach and enrollment coordinator with the Alaska Primary Care Association, said subsidies should help offset the cost increases.

Nearly 13,000 Alaskans signed up for coverage during the prior enrollment period, which ran from Oct. 1, 2013, to March 31. About 88 percent of those who selected plans received subsidies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in May.

For those who don't qualify for subsidies, the increases could be hard to swallow, said Aimee Crocker, operations manager with Enroll Alaska. The broker is helping people enroll in plans either on or off the exchange, she said.

Since October 2013, Enroll Alaska has enrolled an estimated 3,000 Alaskans in coverage, Crocker said. The broker would like to see those individuals re-enroll in plans and possibly enroll an additional 500 to 1,000 people.

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