Filed Under:Health Insurance, Individual Health

HealthCare.gov better, Utah experts say

Jeffrey Daniel, a nurse in Utah, listens to John Belin inhale. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Jeffrey Daniel, a nurse in Utah, listens to John Belin inhale. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The performance of the HealthCare.gov federal exchange enrollment site has been improving since October, when only 350 Utah residents were able to use the site to buy insurance, health policy specialists said Thursday.

Matt Slonaker, the executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, said the widespread technical troubles combined with political opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) caused many to wonder if PPACA was doomed.

"A few short days ago, it seemed as though health care reform was bound for failure," Slonaker said Thursday at a Utah Health Policy Project meeting. "Today, just a few days later, things have changed a bit."

Federal officials said they fixed hundreds of technical glitches last weekend, and by Thursday, Slonaker said the system was much improved and more people were getting through.

The Utah Health Policy Project is a nonprofit group that has been working to tell Utah residents about PPACA.

After the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that runs HealthCare.gov, made technical repairs last weekend, CMS officials reported that traffic flow on the website had doubled.

The PPACA exchange plan enrollment period started Oct. 1. To have coverage in place by Jan. 1, consumers must sign up by Dec. 23.

CMS officials said they expect to see a flood of applicants trying to enroll by  the Dec. 23 deadline.

Slonaker said the floodgates have opened and many more people are signing up, but he said he wouldn't be surprised if the website still has some glitches down the road.

Phil Sherburne, a Salt Lake City father of three, said he was able to enroll in a plan through the website in early October.

Sherburne, who owns a framing business, said he'd been uninsured for several years but has signed his family up for a plan that will cost $123 a month.

He told the audience Thursday that he has still not received a bill from the insurance company and has been told there's a problem on the back end of the website that has prevented his information from being sent to the company.

Despite that, Sherbourne said the steps he's been able to complete have brought him a sense of stability.

"It's really reassuring to know that, come January, we'll have insurance," he said.

Greg Matis, senior counsel with insurer Select Health, said it's too soon to say if large numbers of people will be able to enroll by the end of March to avoid tax penalties.

"Those numbers are just barely now starting to eek up," Matis said. "They were abysmal at first. If the current rate persists, it's not going to be anywhere near what was expected."

Speakers also discussed the state's looming decision about whether to take more federal Medicaid money.

Under PPACA, states have the option of expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the state-federal program for low-income people.

The federal government has offered to pick up the full cost of Medicaid expansion through 2016 and 90 percent after that.

Utah leaders, including Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, have said they're worried the federal government may not be able to keep the PPACA Medicaid funding promise.

Former Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who is now the president of the Utah Hospital Association, said he's worried some employers may stop offering plans to their workers if the workers became eligible for Medicaid.

Bell said he believes Utah will be able to find a unique solution, such as using the money that would have gone toward expanding the program to instead help cover the cost of private plans for those people.

Herbert has said he plans to make a decision on the issue by the time the Legislature meets in late January.

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