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Alaska's online insurance market set to debut

Posted: September 29, 2013 - 7:38pm  |  Updated: September 29, 2013 - 11:01pm

JUNEAU — The government’s online health insurance marketplace is scheduled to go live Tuesday, allowing Alaskans to shop for private insurance and meet the requirements of the new federal health care law.

It’s not clear just what the new marketplace will look like or how smooth the rollout will be, though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects a fully functioning site to be operational Tuesday.

Officials note there are sometimes hiccups with major rollouts, but Tuesday isn’t the deadline for anything — it’s simply when the new insurance website is set to go online and people can begin browsing their options.

Under President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, virtually everyone will be required to have health insurance as of Jan. 1. There are exemptions for financial hardships and religious objections, but those who ignore the mandate will face fines.

Those who select a plan by Dec. 15 can get coverage starting Jan. 1, while March 31 marks the end of open enrollment. Individuals can still enroll after that if they have a qualifying event such as job loss, birth or divorce, according to http://www.healthcare.gov , the government website where people will access the marketplace.

United Way of Anchorage and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium recently received federal grants to act as so-called “navigators,” to conduct outreach across Alaska and help promote the insurance markets. Joan Fisher, the lead navigator for United Way of Anchorage, said there’s a lot of misinformation floating around and people scaring others.

“I think if there’s a message to tell people it is, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, whatever you want to call it, is happening. It’s going to happen Oct. 1. I don’t think it’s going to get defunded and you have an individual mandate to enroll in health insurance,” Fisher said. “That’s the law, and we can help you.”

Fisher said the calls she’s received so far are generally from people who have been eagerly waiting for this. They perhaps have been denied coverage for preexisting coverage and will now be able to get insurance, and they want to know the premium rates.

Figures released last week by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department show the average individual monthly premium for a benchmark policy known as the “second-lowest-cost silver” plan will be $474 for Alaska. Of the 48 states analyzed, only Wyoming’s average premium was higher in that category, at $516.

Premiums, though, have long tended to be higher in Alaska, with one of the biggest drivers being health care costs, said state Insurance Director Bret Kolb. Alaska also is a relatively small state, population-wise, with limited competition among insurers.

Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, the largest health insurer in Alaska, is one of two companies offering plans on the insurance marketplace, along with Moda Health. Premera has more than 9,000 individual members in Alaska and expects that number to double over time, said Eric Earling, a spokesman for the company.

It’s difficult to compare older policies with those offered on the new exchange, Earling said, citing in part a difference in benefit plans and rating structures. But he said his company is concerned about the overall affordability of policies.

Those whose income is low enough to qualify for a tax credit, or subsidy, “will probably get a great deal,” he said, while others who qualify for a smaller subsidy or just exceed income guidelines for one might have a tougher time. Some will pay less, and some will pay more.

The idea behind the health care law is to create more competition and limit or drive down rising costs. Additional insurers can join the marketplace, or insurers can pull out.

While some states set up their own marketplaces, Alaska is among those who let the federal government do it. Gov. Sean Parnell had raised concerns about the unknowns surrounding the marketplaces and said “federally mandated programs should be paid for by federal dollars.”

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