While the priorities at Access Health CT (AHCT), the state’s insurance exchange, will remain the same under the stewardship of new CEO James Michel, outreach to potential and existing customers will be expanded in AHCT’s ongoing efforts to increase the number of Connecticut residents who are insured.
“Above all, we want to ensure the lowest insurance rates possible,” Michel told the Business Journal. “That has always been our primary focus and it is not going to change.”
Michel was named AHCT’s interim CEO on June 14; he was given the official title late last month. The Haitian native, who lives in Bloomfield, was the agency’s first operations manager, moving up to director of operations in 2014 and director of finance in 2017. He replaces Jim Wadleigh, who resigned in April.
“Operationally, we’re going to focus on how we can approve the customer experience,” Michel said. “We want to be able to offer them the doctors and the right insurance plans for themselves and their families.”
Changes include improvements to the AHCT website, which now includes a “Compare Plans” feature allowing individuals to see plans that take into account their doctors, medications and medical use. Beginning when open enrollment starts on Nov. 1, customers can choose a different plan “that’s right for them, and may even see cost savings,” said Director, Marketing Andrea Ravitz.
Michel said improvements are also being made to the exchange’s call center, whose employees “will be provided new tools to answer questions faster and more accurately.” Hours will change from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The exchange is also expanding its number of enrollment fairs to six. During those events, a team of AHCT staff, enrollment specialists, certified application counselors and brokers will provide free in-person assistance to help consumers shop for health care coverage.
In addition, on Oct. 1 the agency announced a series of community-based educational discussions called “Healthy Chats.” Eleven of those are planned, all to take place prior to open enrollment. Two will take place within the county: the first at Stamford’s Government Center cafeteria, was held on Oct. 4, with another scheduled for Oct. 30 at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury.
Participants are encouraged to register online, ahead of the sessions, but can register upon arrival. AHCT has also arranged for a discount with ride-sharing service Lyft to encourage participation.
Ravitz said that such efforts are designed to educate customers and potential customers well beyond the open enrollment period.
Michel said it was impossible to estimate how many people will enroll this year; the exchange enrolled 114,134 customers during its last open enrollment period, which ran from Nov. 1 to Dec. 22, 2017. That was up 2.3 percent from 2017’s figure of 111,524.
“The biggest challenge for us, for a number of reasons, is the economy,” Michel said. “The fact that so many people are gainfully employed may limit how many we enroll this year.” As of August, Connecticut’s unemployment rate was estimated at 4.3 percent, down from August 2017’s 4.5 percent and a far cry from August 2010’s 9.1 percent.
Michel also declined to predict whether this year’s open enrollment period will be extended, as it was last year when its conclusion was moved from Dec. 15 to Dec. 22. This year’s open enrollment is scheduled to conclude on Dec. 15. “We’ll be looking at how things evolve before making a decision on whether to expand,” Michel said.
As for ongoing concerns about the possibility of major reforms to, or repeal of, the Affordable Care Act, under which AHCT and other state insurance exchanges were created — Republican lawmakers have backed off such efforts until at least after the midterm elections — Michel dismissed it as “background noise.”
“We will continue to monitor it,” he continued, “but we cannot be distracted by it. We are focused on making sure that we remain a viable exchange that provides quality health care at the best possible price to all residents of Connecticut. As things evolve, we will respond when necessary.”
Another longtime specter facing the exchange is the participation of insurance carriers. While there were four insurers on the exchange in 2016, that number has since shrunk to two — Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and ConnectiCare — both of whom have cited rising costs as reasons for possibly exiting AHCT.
Last month the Connecticut Insurance Department made what it said were its final decisions on the insurers’ proposed health insurance rate filings for the 2019 coverage year — significantly lower than what the carriers were seeking — again raising questions over whether Anthem and ConnectiCare will remain on the exchange past the current period.
“We have a very strong relationship” with the two carriers, Michel said. “It’s getting better every year. I meet with both CEOs every two weeks to discuss strategic issues. They voice their concerns — sometimes I have answers for them, sometimes I don’t — but our relationship has never been stronger than it is now.”
Michel said he remains in discussions with other carriers about possibly joining the exchange.
Michel’s appointment won plaudits from Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who also chairs the AHCT board.
“James Michel’s attention to improving the customer experience, ensuring sustainability of the health insurance exchange and building a healthy culture within the organization provides a platform for continued success,” she said.
Robert Tessier, vice chair of the AHCT Board of Directors, agreed. “The board is in full support of James and his abilities to continue leading Connecticut’s fulfillment of the Affordable Care Act, despite political headwinds,” he said.
“The values-based approach that he, other leaders at the exchange and employees have developed together is one example of his ability to bring people together for the benefit of many,” Tessier said. “As we head into another open enrollment season, we are confident in his leadership.”