Insurers: Website signups at a crawl

One Louisiana insurer has enrolled 35 people since the federal health insurance marketplace opened Oct. 1, and two nonprofit groups have helped around 44 Louisiana residents enroll.

Those numbers were among the few made available at a Friday meeting of the Louisiana Health Care Commission, an advisory board that looks at issues affecting health care.

Monroe-based Vantage Health Plan has enrolled 35 people, most of them from the Baton Rouge-area and south, spokesman Billy Justice said.

“I can tell you right now that our customers are stressed out. Our providers are stressed out. Our brokers are stressed out,” Justice said.

Justice said no big changes are needed other than to get HealthCare.gov, the marketplace website, running smoothly.

Louisiana Health Cooperative CEO Greg Cromer, a state representative from Slidell, declined to say how many people the cooperative has enrolled, but noted the numbers are disappointing.

Most of the cooperative’s limited enrollment success has taken place fairly late at night, when there’s less Web traffic, Cromer said.

The state’s two other participants in the marketplace, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana and Humana, continue to refuse to say how many people they have enrolled.

Nonprofits being paid by federal grants to help people sign up say the response so far has been less than expected.

Linda Beauvais, executive director of Capital Area Agency on Aging, District II, said the nonprofit has helped about two dozen people enroll so far.

The agency has two full-time navigators and plans to enroll 2,000 people, so the agency is way behind, she said. Most of the people the agency serves, those ages 50-65, know about the marketplace but need help with the application process.

The agency’s workers are spending a lot of time, including nights and weekends, helping and educating people, in person and on the phone, she said.

Jordan Ring, spokeswoman for The Martin Luther King Health Center Inc., said the nonprofit clinic’s four navigators hope to enroll 300 of the 900 patients the clinic serves in northwest Louisiana.

So far, the center’s navigators have helped about 20 patients enroll or fill out paper applications, she said. Most don’t have computers and need help with paper applications, which allow people to find out if they’re eligible for subsidies.

Filling out a paper application is only the first step in the process, said B. Ronnell Nolan, president of Health Agents for America. A half-dozen federal agencies, including Homeland Security, must vet the information, so it can take six to eight weeks to get a reply. And then the person still has to select a health plan, which means going online, she added.

The state estimates that as many as 350,000 of the 860,000 Louisiana residents who don’t have health insurance will qualify for the subsidies offered for health insurance coverage on the marketplace. Some insurance industry members believe 150,000 of those subsidy-eligible will buy coverage during the first year.

For now, consumers have lots of questions about the marketplace.

The Louisiana Department of Insurance has gotten 199 calls about the marketplaces so far this month, a surprisingly low number, Deputy Commissioner Emma Fontenot said. However, the federal Health Department has gotten 22,000 calls from Louisiana, which shows residents are looking for help, Fontenot said.

Brian Burton, director of health promotions for Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center, said the nonprofit and three other education centers are reaching out to community groups and organizations, as well as the other navigators,

The goal is to help teach as many people as possible about the marketplace and how the application process works, Burton said.

One of the interesting things people are telling the Education Center is that they think the marketplace health plans aren’t part of Obamacare and are much better than what they would get under the president’s plan, Burton said.

Justice said there is a large segment of the population that doesn’t realize that they’re buying private insurance coverage through HealthCare.gov.

And there are people who think only one plan is available instead of dozens, he said.

The insurance executives who spoke at Friday’s meeting were careful to avoid taking a stance, pro or con, on the Affordable Care Act. But all agreed the low enrollment numbers were the result of problems with the HealthCare.gov website.

What the insurers could not say is how quickly the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be able to make the fixes to HealthCare.gov.

Tej Shah, senior vice president of business development strategy for Blue Cross, said people should be careful about putting too much emphasis on the results of the website’s first few weeks of operation.

However, the state’s largest insurer is just as lost as everyone else when it comes to answering when the website will be running smoothly, Shah said.

Cromer compared the marketplace rollout to what Mark Twain said about carrying a cat by its tail: you learn things you can’t learn any other way.

“We got a big, big cat that we’ve grabbed ahold of. Maybe a tiger,” Cromer said.

Still, Justice said he is confident the website will be fixed.

“If we can send a rocket to Mars, land it, a door opens and this little 4-wheeler’s running around looking for rocks and sending back soil samples, we ought to be able to fix this website,” Justice said.