The woman in a gray hoodie, jeans and New Balance sneakers walked into Access Health CT’s New Haven storefront because the state’s healthcare exchange website would not allow her to enter “zero” as an income. Instead, the portal told her she would have to pay a $660 monthly premium, which did not seem right. So instead of calling the help line, the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, visited 55 Church St. in search of assistance.
Connecticut is the only state in the country to offer these types of retail storefronts, which typically attract about 200 daily visitors hoping to learn more about coverage. With less than a month before the March 31 deadline to acquire coverage under the Affordable Care Act without paying a fine, the retail stores aim to enroll 20,000 uninsured New Haven residents and 260,000 total state residents in health care plans.
To date, about 120,000 Connecticut residents have acquired coverage through the state’s healthcare exchange Access Health CT. Connecticut is the only state in the country to have surpassed the federal government’s enrollment projections, and according to Chief Executive Officer Kevin Counihan the stores have been instrumental in the success of the state health care exchange. The insurance marketplace opened its first retail location in New Britain in November 2013, followed later that month by the New Haven location, and is establishing a third in Fairfield County.
“We believe that the ACA largely promotes constructive disruption — it basically says that the status quo needs to be changed and incentivizes states to be creative,” Counihan said. “We believe [the stores] are very much aligned with this goal.”
When customers arrive at the Church Street store, an assistant takes their basic information and assists them through the sign-up process. After narrowing down options, customers are transferred to a broker who can recommend the best choice for them.
Store manager Mike Dunn said he believes the store addresses the needs of those who are not comfortable with computers or sharing their social security numbers over the phone.
“I think the storefront is a key part of the high coverage of residents in the state,” Dunn said. “Other states are looking to the CT franchise and leadership because of the success.”
Access Health CT’s public awareness campaign, including print, TV and online advertisements, has played an instrumental role in bringing customers to the store, Dunn said. Doctors and the Department of Social Services (DSS) also refer individuals to the storefront, he added.
Of the eight customers interviewed at the store, four learned of the location through TV or billboard advertisements, one had been referred by his doctor, and another by a DSS worker. Another said he only learned of the storefront because he walks past it on his way to class at Gateway Community College.
Customers interviewed came to the store for a variety of reasons. Some had not even looked at the health insurance sign-up website, others found it too confusing, amd some found it helpful but wanted advice to determine the best insurance plan.
Angela Maya visited the Church Street location for recommendations on which health plan to choose. She has no insurance, and after she got into an accident last week, the hospital told her she needed to sign up for coverage. Maya said she found appropriate plans on the Access Health CT site and visited the store to get advice from a broker on the best plan for her needs.
Others said that the DSS directed them to the storefront. Chris Neumann, who is currently unemployed and only receives income from food stamps and medical insurance, said the DSS informed him that his state-provided medical coverage was up for review. Neumann said he came to the storefront to speak with someone face-to-face.
According to Dunn, the opportunity to speak with health insurance brokers in person is one of the store’s main draws.
Connecticut residents also come to the store after experiencing difficulty with the healthcare website. A customer who lost her insurance, and who wished to remain anonymous, said that when she called for online assistance, she found herself speaking to representatives in Illinois and California who did not understand the Connecticut marketplace.
East Haven resident Donna Searles had not used the Acess Health CT’s website before walking into the Church Street store, but after filling out an application with the help of a store assistant and meeting with a broker, she walked out with a cheaper plan.
“I saved $120 a month, and I did it all within an hour,” said Searles, who recently lost her job. “I’m excited.”
Access Health CT was created by the Connecticut legislature in 2011.