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Alaska health exchange website getting better but not perfect

Tegan Hanlon

Officials said Tuesday morning the health insurance marketplace in Alaska is making progress, but bumps still exist on the federally run website.

Since its Oct. 1 launch, navigators, certified counselors and brokers helping individual Alaskans sign up for health insurance have expressed frustration over the technical glitches that barred most people from completing enrollment on HealthCare.gov during its first month.

But recently, two months into open enrollment, the Internet site has begun looking up, said representatives from the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, the private broker Enroll Alaska, and Susan Johnson, northwest regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Enroll Alaska, an affiliate of Northrim Bank, has enrolled 86 people in Alaska's online marketplace and 36 apart from the website so far -- most in recent weeks, said Tyann Boling, its chief operating officer.

"I would say on a scale of one to 10 it's operating at about a seven," Boling said about HealthCare.gov. "Our enrollment numbers are coming up dramatically. Yesterday we were able to enroll 14 people. Two weeks ago that would've been impossible."

Enroll Alaska, operating on commission, shut down for three weeks at the end of October after detecting an incorrect subsidy calculator on Alaska's health insurance exchange website. The 50 or so Alaskans who enrolled before the bug was fixed on Nov. 10 may have received an under-calculated subsidy or tax credit, worth as much as $100 a month.

Boling said that for some enrolled Alaskans, the website may have automatically recalculated their subsidies. For others, Enroll Alaska agents can go to the website, delete the old health insurance policy and help the applicant redo the enrollment process, she said.

Before Tuesday, it was unclear how the miscalculation -- which resulted in higher insurance costs for some -- would be remedied. Boling had said correcting the subsidies could have involved a 30- to 60-day appeal process.

There's also the issue of Gov. Sean Parnell's refusal to expand Medicaid in Alaska, leaving a coverage gap of about 40,000 low-income Alaskans who do not earn enough money to qualify for a government subsidy in the health exchange marketplace, yet who also aren't eligible for Medicaid.

"We're frustrated and disappointed that the state did not take the opportunity to expand the program and we want the families and individuals who are affected by this decision to know that the community safety net of services for affordable, comprehensive care are still available," said Jon Zasada, director of development and marketing with the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.

Zasada said that about half of the patients seen at the health center fall into this coverage gap. All will have to apply for a hardship waiver by March 31 to avoid federal fines for failing to buy insurance, he said. He said he was told the paper and online applications for the waiver will become available starting in January.

The end-of-March deadline for the hardship waivers is the same deadline for open enrollment in the health insurance marketplace. Under the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, everyone must carry health insurance or face a financial penalty; the enrollment deadline to avoid the penalty is March 31. People must enroll by Dec. 23 for their health insurance to go into effect by Jan. 1.

Alaska is one of 36 states that opted to have the federal government operate its marketplace.

Department of Health and Human Services regional director Susan Johnson oversees the northwest, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. In the region, Alaska is the only state with a federally run marketplace. But problems still exist on the state-run websites, she said.

"So, misery loves company a bit," Johnson said.

Idaho, which designed its own website to greet its residents but is relying on federal technology behind the scenes, is "doing pretty well," she said. Oregon still can't enroll people online and Washington is "kind of the lead sled dog in Region 10," Johnson said.

Inside Alaska's marketplace, Johnson said, there are still issues involving insurance companies after a person enrolls in the marketplace.

Boling, of Enroll Alaska, said problems arise on a case-by-case basis and couldn't pinpoint anything specific.

One glitch is that one of the two insurance companies providing coverage in Alaska, Moda Health, has duplicate plans on the site. Though the plans appear twice, each one serves a separate network -- one Providence Alaska Medical Center and the other Alaska Regional Hospital. Users can't distinguish which is which.

"We're working on this correction," Johnson said. "It's in the pipeline."

Johnson said Health- Care.gov will be marked by continual progress and improvements "through March and beyond." She also pressed that HealthCare.gov, glitches or not, opens the doors to health insurance for many people for the first time.

"So 20 minutes on a website or 45 minutes on a website to get through that curtain to the promise of coverage and health security is worth waiting for," Johnson said.

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

 


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com