California slow to start small-group exchange

(Covered California image) (Covered California image)

Managers of the Covered California exchange have gotten individual plan enrollment up but say small groups will have to wait until mid-November to sign up.

Board members of California's state-based Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) public exchange talked about the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) division Thursday during a meeting that was streamed live on the Web.

Individual exchange enrollment started Oct. 1.

Peter Lee, the executive director, said Covered California has had a "great start," has a "very functional working worksite," and is just three weeks into the start of a program that could reshape the way U.S. health care works for the next 100 years.

The exchange is not yet releasing enrollment numbers, but state residents have started 125,929 applications for coverage Lee said.

The exchange also has certified 426 plan-based enrollers, 390 application counselors and 2,304 agents.

Agents have complained about certification delays, but help from general agents -- exchange plan wholesalers -- has helped agent certification go more quickly than the certification process for application counselors and plan-based enrollers.

The exchange staff is already developing a calendar for the certification and recertification of the plans to be sold through the exchange in 2015. The 2015 plan issuer applications may be due April 2.

But Lee and others acknowledged that the exchange faces challenges, one being a need to postpone the start of SHOP enrollment.

John Arensmeyer, a representative from the Small Business Majority, a group that likes the PPACA exchange program, said during a public comment session that he sees pent-up demand for SHOP plans, but that starting enrollment after mid-November would hurt efforts to get small groups to use SHOP for 2015 coverage.

Emily Lam, a speaker from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group noted that her own group is a small employer, and that its insurer offered it an early renewal rate increase of just 2.3 percent.

Even though the group strongly supports the exchange program, it and many other nonprofit groups are acting on the early-renewal offers, in part because the increases are so low, and in part because the SHOP still isn't up.

Diana Dooley, the Covered California board chair, said the board would like to see SHOP maximize enrollment but is also pleased with the possibility that worries about competition from exchange plans are helping to hold down the cost of non-exchange plans.

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