Enroll Alaska resumes enrollment after Alaska subsidy calculation fixed

thanlon@adn.comNovember 13, 2013 

A glitch in Alaska's health insurance marketplace that under-calculated the subsidy rates for eligible applicants by as much as $100 a month has been fixed, according to officials.

Enroll Alaska resumed signing up people on the repaired healthcare.gov Wednesday, after about a three-week suspension because of the incorrect calculator. But for the more than 50 or so Alaskans who have already enrolled, the process of getting subsidies corrected may involve a 30- to 60-day appeal process, according to Tyann Boling, chief operating officer with Enroll Alaska.

"That's 100 bucks per month, that's not even per year," Boling said about the miscalculation. "So think about that, that's $1,200 more for Alaskans."

Enroll Alaska, a division of Northrim Benefits Group launched as a brokerage to focus on the individual marketplace, detected the website's bug soon after its Oct. 1 launch. Boling said agents manually calculated potential enrollees' subsidies and noticed that the online rates were $100 less than planned.

Under the Affordable Care Act, households earning between 100 and 400 percent of Alaska's federal poverty level qualify for a government subsidy or tax credit. It's calculated based on the price of the second-lowest cost silver health insurance plan available for the area.

But, in Alaska, the marketplace was calculating the subsidies based on the lowest cost silver plan. That's because the first two cheapest silver plans in the marketplace cost the same, according to Susan Johnson, Northwest Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"So you had to go to the third actual plan to get the second lowest cost," she said.

That's happening now, but it wasn't happening before the glitches were resolved late Sunday, according to Johnson. Boling said she notified officials on Sept. 24 about the higher premium costs for subsidy-eligible applicants.

"Of course it's a disappointment, but we're glad this is fixed as quickly as it was," Johnson said.

The issue now isn't moving forward, but looking back and fixing the enrollments of households whose costs are too high.

The prices will not readjust automatically with the technical fix. Applicants will have to go through an appeal process that could take as long as 60 days, Boling said. Johnson said they are looking into expediting the process. Neither had details about how the appeal will work, but it will involve a paper application.

"We haven't done it yet, so we don't know," Boling said.

The tales of a health insurance marketplace overridden with dysfunction have become commonplace. Alaska has had the second-lowest showing of individuals who selected marketplace plans during the first month, according to government figures released Wednesday. North Dakota had the lowest number at 42 and Alaska reported 53 people enrolled.

Alaska and North Dakota both opted to have the federal government run its health insurance marketplace along with 34 other states.

Alaska's link to the federal website is why the marketplace wasn't shutdown when problems were detected, Johnson said. She said the Alaska-specific section of healthcare.gov could not be isolated.

So, officials decided to keep it open, Johnson said.

"They could keep it going for those states where there were few glitches," she said, while repairing the malfunctions in other states.

It's unclear how many of the more than 50 Alaskans who have signed up may see lower insurance costs with the fixed marketplace because its unknown how many qualified for subsides.

At Enroll Alaska, only three people were enrolled before it temporarily shut down around Oct. 28. During the shutdown, the agency's 26 agents who work off commission were not getting paid.

"We can't make up for lost time," Boling said.

But, they can cross one glitch off as repaired. Boling said there still are verification of identity challenges, log-on issues and problems with subsidy eligibility on healthcare.gov. The agency helped at least six people enroll Wednesday, she said.

"There's still a lot of challenges with the website," she said. "It's functioning much better, but it's definitely not error-free."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.

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