The federal health insurance marketplace website has remained largely inaccessible, but the state’s largest insurer reports that at least some residents have gotten through to buy insurance.
Insurance experts say the delay in improving access to the website may actually benefit people by giving them time to research the various available plans.
But that benefit of that will be limited as the site, healthcare.gov, continues to have delays.
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey was the first to report sales through the marketplace, which is intended to be a one-stop shop for residents to buy insurance and learn whether they are eligible for federal tax credits to make monthly insurance premiums more affordable, as well as other cost-sharing subsidies.
The marketplace, a central feature of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, began a six-month open enrollment period on October 1, but was difficult to access through its first six days.
Horizon spokesman Thomas Vincz said the company has seen a “modest number” of sales through the marketplace.
“We believe the low number is due to the many issues individuals are still experiencing on healthcare.gov,” Vincz said. “We are working to assist the many individuals calling us directly to sign up and expect issues to be resolved and activity to increase in the coming days.”
Vincz wouldn’t provide exact numbers of sales, saying that the company prefers to have that information come from federal officials, who haven’t released sales statistics.
Vincz did provide information on the interest that Horizon recorded on its website last week. There were nearly 17,000 visits to HorizonBlue.com’s “I Need Insurance” consumer page on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, including 4,300 requests for price quotes.
“We are reminding consumers that the enrollment period extends until March 31, 2014 and that Horizon is prepared with added staff and resources to help consumers both on and off the exchange find coverage that fits their needs and budgets,” Vincz wrote in an email on Friday.
Rutgers Center for State Health Policy Director Joel Cantor said he’s not surprised with the federal website problems, considering the enormous complexity of linking the federal site with federal immigration and IRS data, as well as with insurance company sites.
“I don’t think it’s a significant problem yet,” Cantor said. “I do think that if it persists it becomes a significant problem.”
People who sign up for insurance through federal marketplace must make their first premium payment by December 15 to have insurance coverage start on January 1, 2014.
Cantor added that it will take even more time after the federal site is working better to tell whether tax credit subsidies are flowing to eligible residents.
“It’s a little difficult to make a judgment about how it works until we know the outcomes of the enrollment process,” Cantor said, adding that the public won’t know if the subsidies are working like they should until January at the earliest.
Cantor added that even if the site was working well, he wouldn’t expect the number of enrollments to be high at this point.
“Families will want to review their options and take their time,” Cantor said. “Most people don’t buy the first car they look at,” likening it to other major purchasing decisions like buying an automobile.
Cynthia Jay, marketing and strategic outreach director for Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey, said her company still didn’t know on Friday if people had purchased insurance through the marketplace. She said the lack of information could be due to a variety of factors, including the number of visitors overwhelming the federal site, underlying technical glitches, or the fact that some federal contacts have been furloughed due to the shutdown.
Health Republic, formerly known as the Freelancers CO-OP, is the only new entrant to the state’s individual health insurance market. Jay said the company has sold a small number of plans outside of the marketplace. Most people seeking individual insurance are expected to purchase it on the marketplace, since that is the only way to receive the subsidies.
One piece of information useful to consumers is available on all three sites: Lists of doctors available through each plan.
Jay noted that people can still benefit from the looking at the three sites and researching the different plans, even if they ultimately wait to purchase a plan on the marketplace site.
She added that First Republic received a surge of interest from consumers beginning on October 1, including from some people who thought that the date was a deadline to sign up, rather than the first day in a six-month enrollment period.
“They are hungry for it,” Jay said of the marketplace. “And they really want information.”
AmeriHealth, the third company selling plans on the marketplace, didn’t provide sales information late last week.
“It’s too soon for us to report on how many individuals have signed up for our plans,” AmeriHealth spokeswoman Jill Roman wrote in an email, adding that she expects to be able to share more information soon.
Cantor speculated that the partial shutdown of the federal government – which coincided with the marketplace launch — might have even driven more residents to learn about the marketplace in recent days.
“The amplification of the partisan rancor over the ACA as part of the budget impasse I think ironically may have increased the number of people coming to the marketplace,” Cantor said, quoting the marketing axiom that “any news is good news.”