Insurance

News on the state's largest health insurers; the effects of health care reform on coverage; rising premium costs.

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New Mass. Health Connector Website Works, But Some Enrollees Have Problems

Updated November 16, 2014, 9:26 a.m.

State officials and the folks at the Massachusetts Health Connector call the first day of the new health insurance website a success.

“The website was stable and available throughout the entire day,” said Maydad Cohen, a special adviser to Gov. Deval Patrick on the website project. “Response times were averaging under half a second. Throughout the day, no complaints about an inability to get on, no slowness, no issues at all with our performance and usage of the site, which was fantastic.”

  • 5,967 residents were able to put in their income information and figure out what kind of coverage assistance, if any, they could receive.
  • 2,660 of those people qualified for free coverage through the state’s Medicaid program, MassHealth.
  • 1,704 people chose a plan but have not yet paid.
  • 60 people paid and are awaiting confirmation from their insurer.

Roughly 1,600 people did not complete their application. They may still be weighing their plan options, they may have run out of time, or they may have had trouble using the site. And 1,713 people dialed the Connector’s call center number seeking help with their application.

The Connector does not know how many people received error messages, got stuck, had to start over or were told they must fill out a paper application.

But unlike last year, the website is working.

The Connector highlights a Facebook comment from Dianne Anagnos, who says, “My enrollment went smoothly. I am a happy customer and the website was very user friendly.”

Some people were able to enroll with few, if any problems.

But there were also more than a dozen complaints posted to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking programs. These people reported problems verifying their identity, their immigration status or their income. They had trouble enrolling family members. When they dialed the Connector’s call center for help, some people reported wait times of 50 minutes or more. Some were told they would have to fill out a paper application.

Linda Mederios says she was told she would have to fill out a paper application because the site could not verify her identity.

“Not working any better than the old website did,” Medeiros wrote on Facebook, “trying to register & it says ‘cannot verify’ @ this time … been ON HOLD w/phone center for the past 40 mins. UGH !!!!!!!!!”

Medeiros says she started her application at 8 a.m. Saturday. Sometime during the day, she says, a team of Connector staffers called and helped her through the website. By 4:45, she and her husband were enrolled in subsidized coverage.

The Connector will be issuing daily reports in an effort to be transparent about the website. It’s not clear how those reports will measure trouble people have using the site.

The Connector does not know how many people received error messages and had to start over. But here’s a sample of complaints posted to the Connector’s Facebook page:

Continue reading

New Health Connector Website Launches

The command center monitors the traffic on the relaunched Health Connector website. (Rachel Paiste/WBUR)

The command center monitors the traffic on the relaunched Health Connector website. (Rachel Paiste/WBUR)

Updated at 1:30 p.m.

The new Health Connector website for Massachusetts launched successfully Saturday morning and was working as designed upon launch.

“All right, everyone ready to see this thing go up live? Let’s do it,” Maydad Cohen, who oversaw the effort, said to applause just before 8 a.m. Saturday.

The new website allows Massachusetts residents to browse health plans, find out what program they qualify for and complete an application during the open enrollment period between Nov. 15, 2014 and Feb. 15, 2015.

The Health Connector team prepares for the relaunch Saturday morning. (Rachel Paiste/WBUR)

The Health Connector team prepares for the relaunch Saturday morning. (Rachel Paiste/WBUR)

They will also be able to compare plans, including premiums, co-pays and benefits. People who meet income eligibility requirements can get help paying for their coverage through the Health Connector or free coverage through MassHealth.

Nearly a year ago, the former site crashed repeatedly and the state spent millions of dollars to launch the redesigned site.

Deputy Medicaid Director Robin Callahan said the governor’s involvement in the redesign meant a lot to the team building the site.

“I think that’s one of the things we didn’t have the first time around — a real organizing, strong presence,” Callahan said.

Jean Yang, executive director of the Health Connector, said she’s excited about the new site, compared to last year’s.

“A difference of night and day, for the very first time we’re going to be seeing people getting determined for qualified health plan, real time,” she said.

The state expects more than 400,000 people will get their health insurance through this website.

Clarification: This post’s headline was updated to reflect the fact that the website appeared successful upon launch, but more information is forthcoming about its performance.

Earlier:

What You Need To Know For Saturday’s New Health Connector Launch

Call it the countdown to Saturday.

In total, the state Health Connector expects roughly 414,000 Massachusetts residents to use its new website to sign up for health insurance between this Saturday, Nov. 15, and Feb. 15, 2015.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday — the first day of open enrollment — we’ll know if you can get back on track with a permanent plan, ending a year of frustrating dead-ends online, confusing calls and letters, and uncertainty about your care.

Here are some basic details: Continue reading

Where Baker, Coakley Stand On Health Care

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker, before a televised debate Tuesday in Boston (Barry Chin/Boston Globe/Pool/AP)

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker, before a televised debate Tuesday in Boston (Barry Chin/Boston Globe/Pool/AP)

It’s nearly half the state budget, almost 20 percent of the state’s economy and a perennial top concern for voters. The issue is health care, and so far, neither Democrat Martha Coakley nor Republican Charlie Baker has taken the lead on this topic with voters in the gubernatorial race.

“Coakley has perhaps a slight edge on the general health care issue, as well as the affordability issue, but neither campaign has really broken away” on health care, said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. “It’s not like taxes, which go big for Baker. It’s not like education, which tends to go a bit bigger Coakley. It’s an issue that is still very closely fought.”

So where do the gubernatorial candidates stand on some of the key concerns in health care? Below is a summary of the candidates’ proposals for how to treat the health of the state.

On Making Health Care More Affordable:

BAKER: He argues that giving patients information about how much tests and procedures cost, in advance, will help us become informed consumers of care. We’ll spend less money, because we’ll choose to have a baby, for example, at the hospital with the lowest cost and best quality scores. As of Oct. 1, health plans in Massachusetts are required to post what they pay each hospital and doctor.

Baker would take a next step. “I’d like to get to the point where hospitals just post prices and people can see them plain as day,” Baker said. “As governor, I’m going to lean really hard on this.”

Some health care analysts say Baker’s strategy for reducing health care costs could backfire. Patients may assume that the most expensive hospital is the best even though that’s generally not true. And letting Brockton Hospital, for example, know that it is paid about half of what Massachusetts General Hospital receives for a C-section may mean Brockton Hospital demands more money, instead of MGH saying, “OK, I’m going to lower my prices to compete.” In addition, some of the expensive hospitals say their higher prices subsidize teaching and research.

COAKLEY: She argues she is uniquely positioned to tackle health care spending. She created a health care division in the attorney general’s office, issued the first detailed reports on health care costs and used her leverage to negotiate a deal that would limit the price increases Partners HealthCare could demand in the near future.

“The agreement that we have reached, to be approved by the court, caps costs and lowers costs as opposed to maintaining the status quo, which we all agree is too expensive,” Coakley said during a campaign debate on WBZ-TV. Continue reading

For Hospitals And Clinics: Insurance To Protect Against Losses From Ebola

A Boston-based insurance broker is rolling out a new policy for Ebola-related losses at hospitals and clinics across the country.

A Braintree cop places police tape around a Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates sign on Sunday. A patient there complained of Ebola-like symptoms, briefly closing the center. (Steven Senne/AP)

A Braintree cop places police tape around a Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates sign on Sunday. A patient there complained of Ebola-like symptoms, briefly closing the center. (Steven Senne/AP)

How much money might hospitals lose during an Ebola-related quarantine? And will patients use hospitals that treat the virus? Phil Edmundson at William Gallagher Associates developed Ebola insurance to address these risks.

“People may choose to put off their health care, or to get it at an alternative facility, if they feel there’s a reason to suspect Ebola in a given clinic or hospital,” Edmundson said.

Ebola policies could run half a million dollars or more for large hospitals. They will not cover the cost of closing off wards, training staff or overtime.

Other insurers are offering similar coverage for theaters, restaurants, hotels and other public spaces that may have to close if they have a customer with Ebola.

“All Massachusetts hospitals have general insurance policies and liability policies in place for extreme events,” the Massachusetts Hospital Association said in a statement.

The group said it’s aware that hospitals in the state may be evaluating whether “additional insurance for Ebola-specific events” is necessary.

More Coverage:

Selling Mass. On A New Idea: Shop For Care

(Screenshot from Get The Deal On Care)

(Screenshot from Get The Deal On Care)

Could Massachusetts be the only government in the world trying to persuade citizens to shop for health care? I’m scanning Google, trying to come up with another country, province, city…maybe some remote island that has decided: It’s time to learn how to get the best deal you can on care.

Nope, I can’t come up with any other place.

But here it is: Get The Deal on Care. In addition to the website, you may see ads on the T, Twitter or Facebook that will encourage patients to become more savvy consumers of health care.

“We’re at the beginning of a movement here,” said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary for consumer affairs and business regulation, referring to a provision in a Massachusetts law that took effect Oct. 1. It requires all insurers to make real-time prices available to members online and over the phone, and provide members their cost for the service, taking into account co-pays and deductibles.

“We hear about the dawn of patient-centered care,” she said. “We want to put patients in the driver seat. Well, you can’t put consumers or patients in the driver seat if they don’t have information.”
Continue reading

Health Connector Website Update, By The Numbers

Confidence: That’s the mantra among state and private contractors working to replace the Health Connector website that failed so spectacularly last year.

Today, just over a month before the new site is set to go live, Gov. Deval Patrick’s special assistant, Maydad Cohen, will update the Connector board, using numbers to bolster confidence that the roll-out will go smoothly. Speaking of numbers…

91.5 percent — the current rate of site tests that end successfully — a hypothetical member enrolls.

12,671 — the number of concurrent users the new site will be ready to handle (or 46,036 per hour). “Concurrent,” in IT terms, means the number of people who could push a button on the site, triggering some kind of action, at the same time. Website managers say this is double the capacity they expect to need. They are aiming for “overkill.”

74,000 — the number of people who can browse the site (but not all clicking buttons at once) at any given time. This is double the 37,000 who visited the failed site last year on its opening day.

Under 3 seconds — the maximum time website managers say users will have to wait for a response after clicking to a new page. Continue reading

Judge Wrestles With Partners Deal

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders is wrestling with a decision that will shape the health care industry in Massachusetts for at least a decade.

On the face of it, Sanders is reviewing a customary settlement in an anti-trust case. Partners HealthCare and Attorney General Martha Coakley reached an agreement to avoid a lengthy court fight. The agreement would allow Partners to acquire at least three hospitals and hire more physicians in exchange for limits on price increases and unchecked expansion through the next decade.

“[Sanders] has two choices: either enter it or not enter it,” says Partners attorney Bruce Sokler of Mintz Levin. “It’s not like she can rewrite the decree or decide what the right answer is for health care. There are other forums for that in the commonwealth.”

But this case, Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Partners HealthCare et al, is not proceeding like any routine anti-trust matter.

For one thing:

“This is the first time I’ve ever had this kind of opposition to a consent decree,” Sanders said during a hearing Monday.

Continue reading

How Mass. Plans To Re-Enroll 450,000 Residents In Health Insurance

All of the estimated 450,000 Massachusetts residents who get health insurance through the Health Connector or MassHealth — some of whom have been in a confusing phase of temporary coverage this year — will soon begin the process of applying for coverage for 2015.

If the state’s new health insurance website is up and running — which the Patrick administration promises it will be — then residents will be able to beginning applying online Nov. 15. If the website still isn’t working, or using a computer isn’t convenient, then you’ll have to fill out a paper application.

Either way, you might want to keep a copy of this timeline handy through January. There are several different deadlines that may be tricky to remember. Here’s an explanation:

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

The key on the bottom left of the chart describes each diamond. Pay close attention to the red diamonds — these are the working end dates for your coverage. I say “working” because these dates assume insurers and the federal government grant the state’s request for extensions.

The state is seeking the extensions so it can spread out the re-enrollment period to avoid overloading members or the system. All the plans through the Connector and MassHealth are currently set to end on Dec. 31, but your coverage may be good for a few more weeks if the extensions are approved. Make sure to look for the coverage end date on any letters you receive.

If you have a commercial health plan through the Connector, find the gray QHP (qualified health plan) box on the top left of timeline and follow the timeline across. Look for your open enrollment package in the mail in early November. Your coverage ends on Dec. 31.

If you had a Commonwealth Care plan last year that has been continued this year, then look for the gold box. The state hopes to extend your coverage through January, so you’ll have two-plus months to review your coverage options.

If you have temporary coverage through MassHealth, then you will be reminded to re-enroll in waves based on when you signed up. You’ll fall into the purple, blue or green boxes above. According to this timeline, your coverage is expected to end sometime between Jan. 15, 2015 and Feb. 15, 2015. But again, the state does not yet have approval for that extension.

The Patrick administration is also waiting to hear if the federal government will give Massachusetts another $80 million to build the new health insurance website, or the $18 million requested to fund outreach, ads and other enrollment efforts.

Related Coverage:

A First-Year Victory In The Mass. Fight To Control Health Costs

(Source: Center for Health Information and Analysis)

(Source: Center for Health Information and Analysis)

Two years ago, Massachusetts set what was considered an ambitious goal: The state would not let that persistent monster, rising health care costs, increase faster than the economy as a whole. Today, the results of the first full year are out and there’s reason to celebrate.

The number that will go down in the history books is 2.3 percent. It’s well below a state-imposed benchmark for health care cost growth of 3.6 percent, and well below the increases seen for at least a decade.

“So all of that’s really good news,” says Aron Boros, executive director at the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA), which is releasing the first calculation of state health care expenditures. “It really seems like…the growth in health care spending is slowing.”

Why? It could be the pressure of the new law.

“We have to believe that’s the year,” Boros says, “that insurers and providers are trying their hardest to keep cost increases down.”

But then, health care spending was down across the U.S., not just in Massachusetts, last year.

“There’s not strong evidence that it’s different in Massachusetts; we really seem to be in line with those national trends,” Boros adds. “People are either going to doctors and hospitals a little less frequently, or they’re going to lower-cost settings a little more frequently.”

The result: Health insurance premiums were flat overall in 2013.

2013 average premiums:

Individual: $461 PMPM (1.8% increase 2012-2013)

Small group (1-50 enrollees): $421 PMPM (0.4% increase)

Mid-size group (51-100 enrollees): $444 PMPM (0.5% increase)

Large group (101-499 enrollees): $433 PMPM (-0.2% decrease)

Jumbo group (500+ enrollees): $423 PMPM (-0.8% decrease)

“2013 was a year in which we were able to exhale,” says Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. But he’s worried the break on rates was short-lived. This year, Hurst’s members are reporting premium increases that average 12 percent.

“If we’re going back to these double-digit increases that so many small businesses suffered through for most of the last decade, we have very large concerns,” Hurst says. “What’s going to happen to the small business marketplace in Massachusetts?” Continue reading