Wyoming residents have begun buying health plans through the federal insurance marketplace despite technical problems that have dogged the site since it launched two weeks ago.
Federal officials have so far refused to disclose how many people have purchased plans through the exchange, which was established by the Affordable Care Act. But officials at two Wyoming insurance companies say they are now enrolling customers through the new marketplace.
It’s unclear exactly how many people in Wyoming have bought coverage through the exchange, which is a sort of virtual marketplace where individuals and small businesses can shop for insurance. WINhealth President Stephen Goldstone estimated a couple dozen customers have enrolled via the exchange.
Goldstone expects the numbers will rise as the deadline approaches to obtain insurance. The federal health law requires most Americans to possess coverage by Jan. 1 or face a penalty.
“My guess is this will really start to ramp up as we move into November,” he said.
Under the Affordable Care Act, states can develop their own exchanges. Wyoming was one of 36 that opted to leave the task – or at least some of it – to the federal government.
The federal marketplace launched Oct. 1. Its website, healthcare.gov, experienced glitches and other problems that kept people from enrolling or even creating an account. Those issues appear to be easing, but haven’t disappeared entirely.
“I would say that anyone who signed up so far is a hardy soul,” Goldstone said.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wyoming began receiving completed applications from the exchange last week, said company representative Wendy Curran. She didn’t know how many.
“It’s really slow and we don’t have any idea whether there are a lot waiting in the federal system, or whether people are still trying to get through,” she said.
Wyoming has some of the highest average premiums on the marketplace, federal figures show. However, the amount consumers actually pay is dependent on whether they qualify for federal subsides.
The subsidies, which are based on income, could save some people hundreds of dollars. Others might earn too much or too little to qualify for any discount.
Brett Glass owns an Internet service provider that serves Albany County. Since he’s self-employed, he must purchase his own health insurance. In the past, companies have balked at covering his wife, who had back problems but has since recovered.
It took about 10 days after the marketplace opened before Glass was able to shop for insurance. He hasn’t purchased a plan yet, but has found ones that would save him money while covering his wife.
“We are still finalizing things, but so far, all the news has been good,” he said
The website itself isn’t perfect, Glass said. The design could have been much simpler, and the government could have found better contractors for the work.
But it’s a step in the right direction.
“This is a tremendous benefit to us,” he said. “It’s very discouraging to see our legislators and Congress opposing such a thing strictly to gain points with their political party.”
To make the exchange work, federal officials can’t rely solely on those with health problems. They must also convince young, healthy people to enroll. Without enough of them in the system, premium will rise as the market is dominated by people who tend to be older and sicker.
Steve Klein could be considered part of the “young invincibles” demographic that’s so vital to the law’s success. The 29-year-old lawyer is single, healthy and without health insurance. Based on his experience with the marketplace, that’s not likely to change soon.
Klein is staff attorney at Wyoming Liberty Group, a free-market think tank that’s been critical of the federal health care law. He isn’t wealthy, but earns too much to qualify for a subsidy. When he visited the exchange, he discovered the cheapest catastrophic plan would cost him about $260 a month – or about $170 more than what he could purchase outside the marketplace, he said.
With those options, Klein plans to just pay the penalty next year for not having insurance. It starts at $95 a year, or 1 percent of your income, whichever is greater. Even when the penalties rise, they’ll still be cheaper than insurance.
“As I get older, as I have a family, the variables will change,” he said. “Right now, as a so-called young invincible – no way.”