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Insurance glitches possible, but not key

Posted: September 30, 2013 - 2:00pm  |  Updated: October 1, 2013 - 12:01am

JUNEAU — There will likely be some glitches associated with the rollout of the online health insurance marketplace in Alaska — surges in use, people getting lost on the website or delays in response time, a federal official said Monday.

However, such issues won’t diminish the fact that on Tuesday, millions of people around the country who have been “locked out from the peace of mind of getting health insurance” because of past health problems will now have access, said Susan Johnson, a regional director with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The message, she said, is “the door is open, and it’s a welcoming door and there are people to help these folks come into the world of insurance coverage and potentially at costs that are much less than they might have imagined, with assistance.”

An estimated 139,000 Alaskans under the age of 65 are uninsured, Johnson said.

She said the exchange website should still go live, even if there is a federal government shutdown, because the site has already been prepared.

Alaska is among the states that chose to have the federal government set up the marketplace. In the event of a shutdown, thousands of federal agency employees would be furloughed, and there could be a delay in reaching state-specific people in departments like Medicaid, she said.

But the “broad, green light” for the launch should still be there, she said.

Johnson and others have noted that Tuesday isn’t a deadline: It’s the day Alaskans can begin browsing their options for private insurance via the marketplace.

She said she expects a surge in activity in November and December and hopes people take time to review their options and seek guidance if they need it. She also cautioned people against “false fronts” — fraudulent sites — and said the safest route to access the exchange is through the government site, http://www.healthcare.gov.

United Way of Anchorage and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium received federal grants to act as so-called “navigators” to conduct outreach and help promote the marketplace in the state.

Enroll Alaska, a division of Northrim Benefits Group LLC, is a broker established to help individuals and families sign up and understand their options. While Enroll Alaska will receive a commission from participating insurance companies, Johnson said the group is “passionate” about enlisting people.

Johnson compares Enroll Alaska to a college adviser, and said it can be helpful on specific plans for particular needs.

Under the federal 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 could face fines, which begin at a minimum of $95 for an individual next year and increase to a minimum of $695 a person by 2016.

Those who select a plan by Dec. 15 can get coverage starting Jan. 1; March 31 marks the end of open enrollment. Individuals with a qualifying event such as a job loss, birth or divorce, can enroll after that, according to the government website.

Alaskans could pay some of the highest premiums in the country under the new exchange, according to recently released government figures. Premiums in the past have tended to be higher in Alaska, though, and a number of factors will affect the ultimate personal costs. Johnson said in places where premiums are higher, subsidies to help cover the cost, for those who are eligible, are higher, too.

She said her hope is that more insurers will enter the marketplace over time. Two — Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska and Moda Health — will offer plans initially.

Johnson was expected to attend a Tuesday news conference on the health care law in Anchorage.

On Monday, she met with library officials in Juneau on ways they can be involved in the outreach. She also planned to meet with officials from the governor’s office and make a pitch for Medicaid expansion under the law.

Gov. Sean Parnell has so far resisted expansion, citing concerns about the total cost to the state. He has said his next decision point would come when he submits his budget in December.

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