Individual health insurance signups for 2014 are increasing in Nebraska as the federal website shows signs of improving and as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska clients choose the new option of renewing their old policies instead of buying new coverage.
But people should take steps as soon as possible so they don't bump up against the Dec. 23 deadline to make sure they are covered starting Jan. 1.
Much of the action this week has been from the 45,000 people who received letters from Blue Cross saying they can renew their 2013 policies rather than replace them with the new policies that meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Blue Cross also is sending letters this week to the small number of people who already signed up for Obamacare-compliant policies, telling them they can go back to their old policies if they request renewals by Dec. 13.
Blue Cross opened its call center on Friday and Saturday, when it normally would have been closed because of the Thanksgiving holiday, and received more than 350 calls from people who received the renewal letters, Blue Cross spokesman Andy Williams said. “People are generally very glad they're able to keep what they had.”
CoOportunity Health of Des Moines enrolled 310 people in Nebraska on the federal website in the past week, compared with 73 in all of October, said spokeswoman Leigh McGivern.
Amber Hansen, spokeswoman for Community Action of Nebraska in Lincoln, which oversees the federal “navigators” who can help people enroll for the new health plans, said the best time to use HealthCare.gov is mornings, evenings and weekends.
“Really, weekly and monthly it has improved over time,” Hansen said. “October obviously was the worst time for it. We saw some improvements in November, and after Dec. 1, I haven't had any complaints as of yet. It's made large strides since then.”
Not everyone is finding a smooth process, however.
Application counselors at One World Community Health Center in Omaha have had contact with 932 people since Oct. 1. About 200 of them have applied for coverage, but so far none has enrolled in a health plan, said Emily Sutton, outreach and enrollment manager. Many of them are still shopping and haven't applied.
The 200 who have applied used paper applications and mailed them to the federal office. Those applications are still being processed, even though some were mailed in two months ago.
“We're still having trouble with the website,” Sutton said Tuesday. “As of this week it's working a little more smoothly, but we haven't been successful getting from start to finish. ... Hopefully the feds will get up to speed so that all of those individuals will have an opportunity to select a plan by the 23rd.”
Blue Cross declined to provide numbers on signups so far.
Through Monday, CoOportunity had signed up 4,244 members in the two states, 3,775 of them in Nebraska. Many are outside Omaha and Lincoln, where CoOportunity's rates tend to be lower than competing companies' rates.
Of the 3,775 enrolled in Nebraska, 894 came through HealthCare.gov, spokeswoman McGivern said, some within small-business groups. In Iowa, where most individual policies are due for renewal later in 2014, only 469 people have enrolled with CoOportunity, 344 of them through HealthCare.gov.
McGivern said of the Nebraskans who have signed up through the website, 23.5 percent were 29 or younger; 17.6 percent were between 30 and 39 years old; 15.1 percent, ages 40-49; 24.6 percent, ages 50-59; and 19.2 percent, 60 or older.
Blue Cross' renewal option followed the Nebraska Department of Insurance's decision to provide fast review of renewal policies, which in turn followed a statement by President Barack Obama that states and insurance companies could give customers the option of extending 2013 policies into 2014.
On Monday, Blue Cross sent the State of Nebraska the terms of its policy renewals, including higher monthly premiums because of expected higher 2014 medical costs and because of taxes and fees related to the federal law. The premiums are subject to the department's review and would be charged starting in February.
Some officials have said that while it's easier for consumers to enroll on the website, the system is still balky in relaying information to the insurance companies so that the applications will go through and insurance will take effect as expected — the so-called “back end” of the website.
Blue Cross spokesman Williams said he hasn't heard whether that's a continuing problem with applications in Nebraska.