Wyman: Amid Obamacare uncertainty, Access Health making impressive progress

By Kevin Zimmerman

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The state of Access Health CT, Connecticut’s health insurance exchange, is uncertain – but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily in trouble.

As the Journal reported on Nov. 10, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who also serves as chair of the Access Health CT board, released a statement essentially assuring consumers that the exchange was still in business, and would continue to operate until further notice. That statement was made in the wake of the election of President-elect Donald Trump, who during the campaign repeatedly said he would “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, under whose terms the exchange was created.

wyman_headshotSpeaking to the Journal last week, Wyman doubled down on her earlier declaration, adding: “We honestly don’t know what the federal government might do. We’re all sitting on needles and pins.”

“If there’s any future change, we will adapt and evolve with the best interest of our customers at the core of every decision we make,” added AHCT CEO Jim Wadleigh. “As for right now, it’s business as usual.”

One potentially bright spot has been Trump’s apparent backing off of his plans to completely get rid of Obamacare; since being elected, he has indicated that he may keep the law’s provisions that allow children of up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ plan, and that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

“That’s a good sign,” Wyman said.

An even better one is that AHCT is enjoying unparalleled success with its fourth annual enrollment period, which began Nov. 1 and runs through Jan. 31, 2017. “What we have produced in the first three weeks this year we produced in five weeks last year,” AHCT Outreach Director Emanuela Cebert announced at the organization’s board of directors meeting in Hartford on Nov. 17.

From Nov. 1 to Nov. 15, Access Health CT received 8,800 new applications; 70,000 current application updates; and 61,700 phone calls asking for information about health insurance coverage.

“Enrollment has been much quicker than we’d expected,” Wyman said, “which means there will be fewer people trying to get in under the wire. We’re really excited about that.”

She noted that customers need to enroll by Dec. 15 to make sure there is no gap in their coverage.

The lieutenant governor cited a number of factors for the quicker-than-expected pace of enrollment. “We’ve done a better job of getting the word out,” she said, noting that AHCT has invested in advertising both in print and online. “We’ve also worked through some of the problems we had in the past, so that there are very few complaints. During the first year people had a hard time understanding how to navigate our systems, but now they know what to do and how to choose among the different plans that are available.

“And people know now that they can go straight to one of our physical locations, our call center or online and can get any questions they might have answered quickly,” she added. AHCT operates enrollment centers at Stamford’s Ferguson Library at 1 Public Library Plaza, as well as in New Britain, New Haven, East Hartford and Norwich.

 “The need for insurance [under Obamacare] has been pretty well publicized by this point, and having access to affordable, high-quality health care for a change is something that’s been very well received.”

She allowed that all the talk about the future of the Affordable Care Act during the presidential campaign probably helped as well.

Wadleigh has released weekly enrollment updates since Nov. 1. For the most recent available period, through Nov. 17, AHCT had recorded 119,283 unique website visitors, answered 72,536 phone inquiries, and added a total of 7,043 new customers. Since its inception four years ago, AHCT has enrolled over 850,000 Connecticut residents, Wyman said.

The exchange also partners with the Connecticut Department of Social Services for eligibility and enrollment with the state’s Medicaid program; according to Wadleigh, the total current active figure for 2016 coverage, plus 2017 enrollment, is 101,239 people.

Wyman noted that Trump has also indicated he may block-grant Medicaid and Medicare dollars to states in order to help balance the federal budget, which would otherwise balloon if his proposed tax cuts – estimated at between $3.7-5.9 trillion over the next 10 years – go into effect. Replacing Medicare guarantee of coverage for senior citizens with a voucher system, under which seniors would shop for private insurance, is also apparently on the table.

Then again, the president-elect remarked during the campaign: “Abolishing Medicare, I don’t think you’ll get away with that one. It’s actually a program that’s worked. It’s a program that some people love, actually.”

Block grants for Medicaid and Medicare “would hurt states like ours,” Wyman said, “and it would not be helping people out.”

Although AHCT had a rough 2016 – both United Healthcare and HealthyCT dropped out during the year, and ConnectiCare threatened to do the same – Wyman said that ConnectiCare and Anthem “are on the exchange and are happy, and customers are happy with them.” Asked if there were any active efforts to add a third insurer to AHCT, Wyman said there were not, given Obamacare’s – and thus AHCT’s – still-cloudy future.

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