Insurance companies share the blame for low Obamacare enrollment

I’m no fan of the Obamacare federal exchange Web site.  But it’s ridiculous for anyone to claim that Obamacare is doomed simply because as of today “only” 50,000 people have signed up for insurance via the federal exchange, with another 50,000 via the state exchanges.

I’m going to deal with the federal exchange, as Sarah Kliff has a nice write up of why the state exchange numbers aren’t that bad either.

One major reason why not enough people have signed up via the federal exchange is that the federal exchange Web site still doesn’t work.  At least not for everyone.

And the site not working tends to have an impact on the total number of people who sign up for health insurance via the site.  Now, I’m not happy that it doesn’t work, and we’ve written numerous stories about it.  But it will work eventually.  And only then can we judge whether people are willing to sign up for insurance or not.

Until the federal exchange site is fixed, of course enrollment will be low

Take my sister.  She’s in Illinois, a state that defers to the federal exchange.  I helped her create an account on the federal exchange a week ago Sunday – she was just too busy with work to try before, and all the stories about the site not working convinced her to hold of even browsing plans until now (yet another reason why the initial enrollment numbers will be low – people are waiting for things to calm down).  When we weren’t able to browse plans after creating the account (they, bizarrely, call it “applying” on the site), I called the 800 number on the site and immediately got someone who explained that it takes between 2 hours and 3 days for them to approve you to browse plans.

Now, it’s of course idiotic that anyone has to get “approval” to browse plans (yes, we wouldn’t want bad people to be able to see how much it costs to insure a 55 year old Chicagoan).  The site shouldn’t require any information beyond my sister’s zip code and birthday in order to simply show her what plans are available, and what they cost (without subsidy, of course – it’s more complicated with the subsidy).

Well, it’s been 8 days.  And my sister is still waiting for “permission” or “approval” or whatever to browse the plans on the federal exchange.  So I called the 800 number again, and they recommended just creating a new account. Which we’ll do.  But that’s the reason my sister hasn’t bought a plan yet, because the Web site doesn’t yet work.  And if it’s happening to her, it’s probably still happening to others as well.

Insurance Companies share the blame for low enrollment

But here’s another reason why not everyone who will buy plans has bought them yet.  The insurance companies aren’t doing as good a job as they could passing along information as to what the plans actually cover.

I plan on buying a plan on the DC exchange.  While the DC exchange works exceedingly well, when I called Blue Cross Blue Shield for more information I first got a woman who clearly had no idea what any of the plans contained.  After putting her to out of her misery about ten minutes into the call, I got a guy who knew a lot more, but still couldn’t explain lots of details, such as how the out-of-pocket max worked, how the plan works for providers who are out of state, and he could find no information on whether, and to what extent, the insurance covers my allergy shots.

The man on the phone told me that they had not been permitted to see the plans before the exchanges launched, so the plans were as new to the folks on the phone at BCBS as they were to me.  So again, I’m probably not the only person who called and got a confusing answer as to what the plans covered, thus convincing me to postpone buying anything for a while.

Another problem when I phoned BCBS – they couldn’t tell me what the coverage was for my allergy shots.  I get two shots per month during normal months, and more when changing medication.  Depending on whether they charge $5 a visit, or $25 a visit, is the difference between my paying $200/year versus $1,000/year for my allergy shots.  So it’s not a small question.  BCBS simply couldn’t tell me what their plan covered.  Which is ridiculous, since they were already selling the plan.  Yet another good reason not to buy the plan until BCBS can fully explain what the plan actually does.

And finally, I still can’t get a straight answer as to how my plan works outside of the DC, MD, VA area.  The plan I’m looking at is ironically called a POS (it’s a combination between an HMO and a PPO).  But Blue Cross still can’t explain how the PPO part of  it works, especially outside of my tri-state area.  I even asked my doctor’s office about it today, as they’ve investigated the plans too, and even they can’t get a straight answer as to how the PPO part of the plan works.  In my case, the fact that I still, six weeks into this venture, can’t get a clear answer from Blue Cross Blue Shield as to the details of the plan I want to purchase, has definitely delayed my decision to purchase a plan on the exchange.

I will purchase one.  I’m simply waiting for BCBS to get its act together.

All of this adds up to lots of fixable reasons why not as many people as expected have signed up for health insurance on the Obamacare federal exchange.  But as noted, the reasons are fixable.  And until the problems are fixed, the supposedly-low enrollment numbers simply tell us what we already know – that when the Web site doesn’t work, and even the insurer itself can’t tell you what’s in the plan, people are going to hold off on buying the plans.

But at some point the Web site will be fixed, and Blue Cross will learn what’s in its own plans.  And only then will we be able to look at enrollment numbers and be able to reach any meaningful conclusions.

(I’m told that in order to actually see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me – so say the experts.)

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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