State, Industry Say Health Insurance Exchange Ready in Montana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Officials with the state and the insurance industry have said they are excited about the launch of a federal health care exchange in Montana but advised consumers there is no reason to rush their choices because coverage won’t begin for three months.

In addition, there could be early glitches when the exchange opens for enrollment on Tuesday — unaffected by the debate in Washington over a federal government shutdown.

Using the exchanges, uninsured people can buy insurance from private insurers. It would take effect in 2014. Federal government subsidies, through up-front tax credits, will be given to people earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

Rates vary, with a number of different deductibles available in plans from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, PacificSource and the Montana Health CO-OP. For instance, one of the cheaper “bronze” plans ranges from $117 a month for children to $330 for people over 50.

Montana Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen said the people who will likely benefit most are those who are uninsured, or consumers who have been buying expensive coverage in the individual market.

“It makes it more affordable for them,” said Lindeen, who has been touring Montana discussing the state’s role in helping people understand the exchange. “What I really hope is that Montanans who work real hard to make a living may find there is some positive affect on their families or their small businesses.”

She cautioned people against scams, such as telemarketers telling seniors they have to switch Medicare coverage or trying to sell something as part of the federal health care law. Lindeen said consumers should call her office before making such moves.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana said the exchange will be “transformational” for its business. The company has refocused its operations toward selling directly to consumers on the federally facilitated exchanges.

“We are as excited. and looking forward to the Oct. 1 date, as much as anybody, to see what it is really going to be like” said Mike Frank, CEO and president of Blue Cross of Montana.

Frank said the early challenge is educating consumers about the complicated law.

Todd Lovshin, Montana regional director for PacificSource, said the company is anxious to get started.

“We expect, like any new release of anything, there will be glitches that need to be fixed,” he said. “This is a major system overhaul. We expect there will be some bumps in the road.”

Lovshin said Montanans are not “early adopters” and his company isn’t expecting a rush of customers on Wednesday.

The Montana Health CO-OP, which touts its nonprofit standing, also is encouraging people to move slowly.

“Folks are excited, especially the people who understand the reality of those advance tax credits,” said Karen Murphy, senior outreach specialist for the organization.

Another wrinkle in Montana, since the Legislature rejected Medicaid expansion, is that people earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level will not qualify for any subsidies on the exchange. The insurance commissioner’s office estimates that could affect as many as 50,000 Montanans — depending on how they estimate their future earnings.

The federal law envisioned that Medicaid would be expanded to cover the lowest-income earners. The Republican-led Legislature, however, rejected Gov. Steve Bullock’s plan to accept Medicaid expansion in Montana for those earning up to 138 percent of poverty level.

Opponents worried about the future cost to the state, and the intrusion of the federal health care law.

State Rep. Scot Reichner, a Republican considering a run for Congress, said state coffers will benefit because the population earning between 100 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level will buy federally subsidized private insurance rather than get the Medicaid that includes a price tag for the state.

“As a state Legislature we eliminated Medicaid expansion, or we didn’t pass it, and what that effectively does is it increases the number of people that can go on the exchanges,” said Reichner. “There is some benefit of what we did for the state.”

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