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Life Health > Health Insurance > Health Insurance

Maine groups say exchange interest remains high

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not yet released public exchange plan application or enrollment figures for Maine, but health groups in the state say consumer interest remains strong.

Maine is letting HHS run its Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange program. HHS began trying to sign consumers up for coverage through the enrollment site Oct. 1.

Glitches in the website continue to be a problem for consumers, health groups and insurance companies said Monday at a meeting organized by a committee of lawmakers and health care policy specialists that’s overseeing the Maine exchange program.

Christie Hager, the top HHS official for New England, told the committee via conference call that HHS will not release numbers on how many people have signed up for exchange coverage in Maine until next month.

Hager urged those attempting to sign up for coverage on the exchange in Maine to remain patient. She assured the committee that staff is working around the clock to improve the system.

“As time goes on there will be vastly improved functionality,” she said. “It’s wonderful that we’re all so eager… but we do have a number of weeks even before December 15.”

Health centers have been offering paper applications to those having problems with the federal website, directing people to the call centers and encouraging people to wait a few weeks until the glitches get resolved, said Caroline Zimmerman outreach coordinator for the Maine Primary Care Association.

Kevin Lewis, chief executive of Maine Health Community Options, a health insurer selling coverage through the exchange, said about 5,000 visitors have come to the company’s direct sales portal since Oct. 1, but he said most people will sign up through because that’s the only way they can get subsidies. He couldn’t provide a figure for how many people have already used call centers, the Maine Health website or other means to sign up for coverage.

Emily Brostek, who oversees the statewide help line for the Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care said it has received more than 350 calls this month — more than the entire month of September. Most of the calls related to the health care exchange, which is also called a “marketplace.”

“Many callers when they reach us don’t know what exactly the marketplace is, but they may have heard something about new options … and just kind of need to know what they should be doing,” Brostek testified., a Maine Health Access Foundation website that hosts information about exchange plan coverage and exchange assisters, has had about 19,000 hits, said Wendy Wolf, the organization’s president.

Under current rules, consumers must enroll by Dec. 15 to ensure their coverage takes effect Jan. 1.

The exchange plan open enrollment period is set to last until March 31.

In practice, uninsured consumers must sign up by mid-February to have coverage in place in time to protect them from the PPACA individual mandate tax penalty. The 2014 penalty is set to be $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater.

Maine has estimated that about 250,000 residents could sign up on the exchange, including about 130,000 who are uninsured.

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