With only days to go before the deadline for consumers to
choose next year’s health-law insurance plans, insurers and the federal
government are bracing for what could be a crush of last-minute enrollment
decisions. Of the approximately five million people who enrolled in 2014 health
plans through the federal marketplace, only 720,000 had returned to the
HealthCare.gov website to select a plan for 2015, according to the latest
government tally through Dec. 5. Some 664,000 more people bought plans on the
site for the first time. That leaves millions of enrollees who have yet to make
a decision for next year.
Consumers have until 11:59 p.m. Pacific time Monday to
select coverage that will start Jan. 1. If current enrollees don’t act by the
cutoff they automatically will be re-enrolled in their existing plans—which
could cost them more than if they shop around.
Insurers won’t get final details of which consumers are
switching policies and which are standing pat until the deadline passes. As a
result, some are taking preemptive steps, such as sending early bills to
existing enrollees—with the expectation that the insurer will cancel the bill
if a consumer changes plans—and beefing up staffing.
Last year, as the federal and state exchanges were hit by
technology glitches, officials extended the January sign-up deadline. Insurers
struggled to process error-filled enrollment files, and many people who thought
they had signed up didn’t get their insurance cards by the start of the year.
In the end, nearly all insurers pushed back their premium
due dates, often letting people pay as late as Jan. 31 for coverage that had
started Jan. 1.
This year, insurers say the federal site has been
functioning far more smoothly. Its biggest test is likely to come in the days
before the deadline. Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator at the
Department of Health and Human Services agency responsible for implementing the
law, said site developers have prepared for a surge and there are no plans to
extend the deadline. Open enrollment continues through Feb. 15 for coverage
that starts as late as March 1.
Federal officials have been pushing consumers to return to
the site to review their coverage. HHS leaders last week released an analysis
of premiums across 35 states using HealthCare.gov, which indicated that many
customers could see premiums rise unless they shop around. Some may also find
the tax credits that help pay for coverage have gone down, due to aggressively
low pricing on some policies.
Many insurers say they expect most of last year’s enrollees
won’t take action. People who are automatically re-enrolled could create a
late-December jam for the industry. Insurers say the federal exchange has been
telling them when one of their enrollees opts for a competitor. But the passive
re-enrollers’ information will arrive up to 10 days after the Dec. 15 cutoff.
Still, insurers are worried about misfires. For instance, if
enrollees want to stop coverage from their exchange plans but don’t tell the
exchange or their insurers, they will likely get mistakenly billed.
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