Wisconsin health insurance enrollment growing as federal exchanges improve

MADISON — Nearly 7,200 Wisconsin residents have now signed up for coverage using the much-maligned Affordable Care Act website, Deputy Insurance Commissioner Dan Schwartzer says.

Schwartzer and other panelists agreed the federal insurance exchange is functioning better two months after the rollout of the flawed website. They spoke Tuesday at a Madison luncheon organized by Wisconsin Health News.

“More folks are getting in … It looks like it is improving,” said Schwartzer, who noted his agency has been tracking the numbers closely using federal statistics.

Kathleen Falk, the former Dane Co. executive who now is Region V director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the website is now functioning at 92 percent efficiency and able to handle 50,000 people at a time. That’s twice what it could do 60 days ago. Up to 800,000 people a day are now using it, she said.

“It’s not perfect yet, but significant improvements have been made,” said Falk. Though she lamented the botched website launch, she lauded other aspects of the ACA – popularly known as Obamacare — such as allowing people with pre-existing conditions to buy insurance and permitting consumers 26-and-under to stay on their parents’ insurance plans.

Falk said teams of computer technicians fixed more than 400 bugs on the website. She said there are daily “war room” consultations to fix the remaining problems. She said she believes many people are still shopping for plans using the website.

But she didn’t have up-to-date numbers on how many people have signed up for coverage. New figures should be available later this month, she added.

“We hope they will have that chance to buy over the next couple of weeks to the Dec. 23 enrollment period to get coverage in January,” she said. “But as you know, open enrollment doesn’t end until the end of March.

“It’s still a work in progress, but substantial improvements have been made,” she said.

Falk declined to say if she believes federal officials will agree to two requests by Gov. Scott Walker – who opposed the ACA and is getting legislative backing to delay state Medicaid changes that include use of the federal exchange.

Walker has requested that consumers be allowed to use federal subsidies to buy any health plan offered in the state and that the state be included in a pilot program so customers can go directly to insurers to buy health insurance.

But not everyone on the panel agreed. Kevin Hayden, CEO of Group Health Cooperative and a former health secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, said it ‘s too early to approve the Walker requests. Group Health offers insurance plans on the exchange. Hayden said if the exchange fails to keep improving, he could support the change – just not yet.

“Let’s see how the marketplace works first,” said Hayden.

Hayden said his cooperative is working hard to convince 25- and 26-year-olds they need to think seriously about getting insurance.

“It’s a challenge to attract these folks,” he said. “But it’s like I tell my son, ‘If you don’t have insurance and you break your leg skiing, it’s going to be a very expensive bill for you,’” he said.

Kevin Moore, the state’s deputy health secretary, said partisanship has nothing to do with Medicaid reform and how the ACA is being rolled out in Wisconsin.

“Politics was done in the big white building; our job is to figure out how to move forward with the reforms that are part of the state budget,” he said.

And he defended Walker’s plan to deal with problems in the federal exchange by delaying for 90 days the move of 72,000 people off Wisconsin’s BadgerCare Plus and delaying the addition of 83,000 other patients into the Medicaid insurance program.

He said there was only a short time for people to transfer from Medicaid into the exchanges, and that was affected by website problems.

“We were moving along well and then October and November happened,” noted Moore, who said the three-month delay would allow his department to make a “smooth transition” for both groups. The state Senate is set to approve the Assembly-approved plan later this month.

“It’s not soup yet, but we’re working to make these changes. It’s something like unwinding a ball of twine,” he said.

Therese Pandl, president and CEO of the Eastern Wisconsin Division of Hospital Sisters Health System, added her hospitals are “absolutely engaged” in getting people aware.

“One of the reasons we supported healthcare reform was to make sure patients and people in this country have access to affordable care. So we are investing the resources, including additional staff… to work with people who may be losing coverage or the newly covered and those needing assistance with the enrollment process.”

In some cases, she said people who are “fearful of this whole process” and unfamiliar with insurance need one-on-one help to understand their eligibility, benefits offered by different plans and how they can enroll.

“There is tremendous confusion, so this is taking a lot of time,” she said.

“We’re trying to simplify things, but it often takes one-to-one support, and that is expensive.”

— By Brian Clark
For WisBusiness.com