CT Healthcare exchange sees smooth rollout

Though its rollout was not glitch-free, Connecticut’s week-old healthcare exchange website is functioning more smoothly than most others in the country established as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Since Tuesday, Oct. 1, 175 insurance applications have been processed through the site, AccessHealthCT.com. At a discussion organized by the Yale College Democrats Monday evening in the Branford common room, AccessHealthCT CEO Kevin Counihan joined Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. to talk about the next steps for New Haven and the state. The biggest challenge, Counihan said, would be convincing people that they should sign up for health insurance on the exchange.

“This is a sales job now,” Counihan said.

AccessHealthCT Chief Operating Officer Peter Van Loon told the News that 344,000 Connecticut residents are currently uninsured. The goal is to enroll at least 100,000 for health insurance, whether through Medicaid or private plans, by the end of the first year.

As part of the efforts to persuade uninsured residents to use the exchange, Connecticut designated six cities, New Haven among them, as “navigators” to conduct outreach work and enroll people in insurance plans. New Haven will also be the site of one of two in-person assistance centers, a concept “totally ripped off from Apple stores,” Counihan said.

At the center, which will open on Church Street in two weeks, people will be able to receive guidance from trained counselors as they complete online applications for insurance. The site allows users to compare plan benefits and prices and see whether they qualify for a federal subsidy to purchase insurance.

But DeStefano said the centers would be of little use to a significant proportion of New Haven’s 20,000 uninsured, because “they’re undocumented, which the Affordable Care Act doesn’t address.”

DeStefano said he was concerned that barriers of culture and language would be a challenge in reaching out to uninsured residents. Counihan and DeStefano also noted that even with subsidies, health insurance in Connecticut is expensive. The state spends more on health care per capita than all but Alaska, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

“That’s a big barrier for us in New Haven,” DeStefano said.

Even as AccessHealthCT was setting up the exchange site, it was beginning the work of advertising the exchange. Van Loon said time pressure had forced the organization to complete multiple tasks simultaneously “that in a perfect world would be done in sequence.”

AccessHealthCT had a year to get the exchange up and running, a task Van Loon said ought to have taken two.

“At the same time, we were trying to develop what standard plans to provide, we had to lock down how we were going to present the plans to the world,” Van Loon said.

Counihan said that AccessHealthCT had sponsored several concerts during the summer to target uninsured young people. Counihan met Lil’ Wayne and Lil’ Wayne’s opening act, though Counihan said he was so focused on the technical work of establishing the exchange site that he confused the opening act’s name.

“I called him I.T.,” Counihan said. “He said, ‘It’s T.I., man.’”

In Connecticut, 9.6 percent of the population is uninsured. Critics of the Affordable Care Act charge that the relatively low number of completed applications signals that the law has not been successful. Counihan said fully implementing the law will take time, and added that Connecticut and Kentucky have had smoother exchange rollouts than the other states.

Residents of states that did not establish individual exchanges can buy insurance on a federal site called HealthCare.gov. During its first week, error messages prevented many users from creating accounts and viewing insurance plans.

“Most of the country had a rough week,” Counihan said.

People who enroll in insurance plans via state or federal exchanges will receive coverage beginning in January 2014.

Correction (Oct. 8)
A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Kevin Counihan as Kevin Coulihan.

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