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States Respond to Obamacare Fix

Cover Oregon

President Obama has tried to fix a problem with the Affordable Care Act that’s become a growing political headache for his administration. In the process, he threw a new variable into the already-confused health insurance market place. A look at how the dust is settling in Oregon and California.

The brouhaha began when insurance companies sent out a wave of cancellation notices to the roughly 5 percent of Americans with individual health insurance plans. Those policies were being discontinued because they don’t offer the minimum coverage required under the new law. President Obama had famously promised that people who liked their plans could keep them under Obamacare. After getting hammered in the media, on Thursday, the president made an announcement.

President Obama: “Insurers can extend current plans that would otherwise be cancelled into 2014, and Americans whose plans had been cancelled can choose to re-enroll in the same kind of plan.”

The president said the federal government would allow insurers to extend those policies one more year before having to meet the new standards. But he also noted that the final decision was up to the insurance commissioners who regulate insurance in each state, essentially tossing that hot potato into their laps … The president’s announcement was meant to smooth the waters, but the reaction on the ground was anything but calm.

John Gridley:” First reaction was that it was going to cause confusion.”

John Gridley runs First Choice Health Insurance, an independent insurance agency in Roseburg. As President Obama’s address ended, Gridley’s e-mail list exploded with messages from fellow agents saying they were being swamped with phone calls and e-mail from clients trying to figure out what it meant for them. Gridley has eight agents in his own office.

John Gridley: “They were getting calls too, just like elsewhere.”

And, he says, he didn’t know what to tell them to advise their clients, because Laura Cali, Oregon’s insurance commissioner, hadn’t yet issued rules for how this was going to work in the state. Washington’s insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler quickly rejected the president’s call to extend the old policies. He said it would complicate rather than simplify putting the new health care law in place. By Friday, Cali decided to allow the extensions in Oregon … In California, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones had already made up his mind.

Dave Jones: “Once people were promised the ability to keep their health insurance, I think the decision was very clear.”

Jones says he’d long disagreed with the decision to cancel the individual policies, and just the previous week, he’d pressured Blue Cross and Blue Shield in California to extend them till the end of March … But Nicole Evans, with the California Association of Health Plans, thinks that’s a mistake.

Nicole Evans: “We’re making great progress in implementing the Affordable Care Act here in California, and we think reversing course at this point could actually cause significant disruption in the marketplace.”

Evans says rates and benefits for 2014 have already been set and that re-doing them at this point would just add more confusion. She also argues that allowing the old policies to continue will undermine a key element of Obamacare.

Nicole Evans: “The idea of these state exchanges is to bring in the broad array of people. You’ve got the young and the healthy, the older, the sicker, bring them all together and share the cost across all those individuals.”

Evans says letting people stay in the old policies provides a disincentive to joining the state exchange, which could weaken that market ... The Oregon, exchange doesn’t seem too worried about that. Cover Oregon spokesman Michael Cox …

Michael Cox: “We have been and continue to be very confident in our ability to pull younger, healthier populations into the exchange.”

Cox points out that the subsidies and tax credits to help pay for health insurance are available only through Cover Oregon.

Michael Cox: “Our open enrollment period goes all the way to March 31st and we expect as that deadline nears, a lot of folks will start really paying attention, check out their options, and find out the savings they could get from Cover Oregon and take advantage of the plans we offer.”

Cover Oregon has had a very rough roll-out. The website allows people to compare insurance plans and estimate subsidies. But more than a month and a half after it launched, it still can’t enroll potential clients. That means they have to print out and mail a paper application ... Meanwhile, Oregon Insurance Commissioner Cali has told insurers they have just till this Friday to decide if they’ll extend those cancelled individual policies. Then they’ve got till November 29 to let their customers know that option is available. Cali has also ruled that they must offer those policies with no rate increase … Roseburg insurance agent John Gridley thinks those conditions may make insurers reluctant to participate. So far, only Regence BlueCross BlueShield has committed to extend the old individual policies. So Gridley finds himself waiting to see what the insurers decide to do, and advising his clients to hang tight.

John Gridley: “We’re telling them, well, let’s wait till the dust settles. We’ll know by Friday whether you’ll be able to keep yours or you’re going to have to buy a new one so don’t buy it yet, wait a week.”

Insurance commissioners in both Oregon and California are urging people to shop carefully before they go back to those old policies. Cheryl Martinis is a spokeswoman for Oregon commissioner Cali …

Cheryl Martinis: “Check it out in the exchange, because the new plans for 2014 have more benefits in many cases than the existing plans, and many, many Oregonians are going to qualify for financial help to help pay for that.”

It’s not clear yet whether the president’s action last week will ease the concerns of those who got cancellation notices from their insurance companies. But it doesn’t seem to have made a complicated health insurance landscape any simpler.

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