ALBANY – New York State’s effort to help consumers sign up for the Affordable Care Act – which started out with major computer problems that frustrated consumers – has improved over the last couple of weeks and is not encountering the kind of online glitches seen in 36 states where the federal government is running the program.
But so far, few New York residents have actually signed up for coverage.
Insurers in the state caution, however, that it is far too soon to estimate how many people ultimately will register for the program.
For the first time, the state Health Department has notified many participating insurance companies of the number of people who have signed up for coverage since the program began Oct. 1.
In a spot check of some major upstate insurers participating in “Obamacare” in New York, the sign-up numbers so far are not overwhelming, as most consumers apparently continue to shop for coverage or have changed their minds and withdrawn after enrolling initially.
Consumers have to enroll by Dec. 15 to get coverage beginning Jan. 1, officials said.
BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and BlueShield of Northeastern New York, which insures people in 21 upstate counties, reported Monday that between 100 and 300 people had signed up for coverage under the new health care law.
At Independent Health Association, which insures 370,000 people in eight Western New York counties, only 100 people have signed up. Officials said they did not know how many days of the program’s first three weeks are covered in the information that the state provided to the company Monday.
Another big insurer declined to provide specific numbers because the company’s executives were still trying to crunch the numbers that state officials in Albany sent Friday night and started becoming public Monday.
The enrollment files received by insurers included not only net new enrollment numbers, but data on people who signed up initially and then changed their minds and withdrew.
Such withdrawals were for any number of reasons, including finding out that the insurer they enrolled with does not have participating health care providers where they live.
“This is a new experience for all of us – the state, potential members and insurance companies. I can’t say if it’s meeting or not meeting our expectations. We’re just trying to be a good partner with the state, and if there are kinks in the system, to make sure they get worked out,’’ said Arthur G. Wingerter, president of Univera Healthcare, which insures in eight Western New York counties.
The state’s computerized insurance information system, like the one run by the federal government, began Oct. 1 with a series of glitches that kept consumers from being able to access the main website – run by a private company with a multimillion-dollar contract – on which people can enroll for insurance.
The state scrambled to get more servers for the system, as the official response cited overwhelming consumer demand and not software problems or deeper issues with the program’s design.
The state Health Department said that they notified insurers beginning Friday night that thousands had enrolled in new health plans but could not provide exact numbers. Officials said that interest is high and that 150,000 had gone through the process, though it is uncertain how many will be enrolled come January.
Precise numbers of enrollees will be announced in the near future, a department official said.
“We fully anticipate and expect that the New York State of Health exchange website will improve to the point that it needs to improve to and in a fairly short period of time,” Wingerter said.
“My sense is it’s not as bad at all as the federal system,’’ said Donald R. Ingalls Jr., director of state and federal relations at Buffalo-based BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and the Albany area’s BlueShield.
Ingalls said the challenge is to make certain consumers can get onto and understand how to use the website or state and private telephone call centers for signing up, and that enrollment data is transferred from the state to insurers on a timely basis.
Most insurers were taking a wait-and-see approach. “Preliminarily, information looks positive, but it’s a little too early to tell the full extent of how everything is interacting,” said Frank J. Sava, a spokesman for Independent Health.
Though that first batch of enrollment data did not come to insurers until three weeks after the program began, insurance executives said state officials have assured them that the information will now be flowing on a daily basis to help ensure that consumers have coverage in place by Jan. 1.
Apart from early slowdowns on the state’s health website, insurers say consumers are finding that it can take time – unlike instant results with comparing online airfares – to shop for insurance given how, in part, the different levels of coverage can greatly affect deductibles and co-payments.
There are 16 carriers in New York participating in the program, though only some are available in certain areas. In Western New York, there are six insurers providing the coverage.
“What we’re hearing is people are getting frustrated with the process. They think they can sit down and do this in a half-hour,” Wingerter said.
Another issue is that consumers have read stories about how New York’s insurance premiums under the new law, unlike those in most other states, are declining compared with what they might have spent previously on private health insurance.
In large part, industry officials said, that is because New York already had far more state mandates on what insurers had to offer consumers; it naturally follows, they noted, that other states will have far larger premiums than New York as they must meet new coverage guidelines under the new law that New York already required.
And while some consumers might actually see declines in premiums, others will not, insurers cautioned. The state projects 1.1 million people will eventually be enrolled in the program.
Wingerter said that some consumers will find lower premiums but that it depends on the person being insured.
“It’s affordable on the surface,” he said. For instance, it is vital that enrollees be young and healthy, a group the program hopes to attract to help pay the insurance costs of older Americans with health problems. That is a question that all those in the insurance industry are waiting to have answered.
In the end, it will take more than a 3-week-old snapshot to understand the Affordable Care Act’s impact on health insurance.
“It’s too early to tell. I think everybody in the state and federal governments are being a little hesitant,” Wingerter said. “There are those big supporters who want to show big [enrollment] numbers and those that aren’t supporters who want to show low numbers.
“But nobody has numbers yet, and even if there were, it doesn’t mean by Jan. 1 the numbers are not going to change.”