Topics: California, Insurance, Marketplace, Health Reform, States
Devin Payne, a resident of Palm Springs, says she is finally comfortable in her own skin. Born male, she says she always knew she was a woman. After being uninsured, she signed up for a Covered California plan under the health law. She was widowed in 2013. In May, the 43-year-old single parent underwent gender reassignment surgery and is looking forward to being reimbursed by her insurance company. In California, under a provision of the ACA, insurers are prohibited from denying coverage to people based on pre-existing conditions. For transgendered people like Devin, this means hormone treatment and related care will be covered.
Video by Heidi de Marco/KHN
Topics: California, Marketplace, Insurance, Health Reform, Uninsured, States
Ballerinas risk injury and high health care costs every time they perform. Allynne Noelle, 32, principal ballerina with the Los Angeles Ballet, says the new health care law offers some relief.
Video by Heidi de Marco/KHN
Topics: California, Medicaid, Health Reform, States, Uninsured
Teresa Martinez, 62, from East Los Angeles makes $10,000 a year working as a hairdresser in a Koreatown salon. With her modest income she is likely to be eligible for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act’s Medi-Cal expansion. She is one of about 800,000 people in California waiting to get her card in the mail and start scheduling overdue medical appointments for the first time in decades.
Topics: Health Reform, Politics, Insurance, Marketplace, Health Costs
In a White House news conference Thursday, President Barack Obama also announced that 35 percent of people who enrolled on the federally run healthcare.gov marketplace are under age 35.
A transcript follows.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Before I take questions, I'd also like to say a few words about how the Affordable Care Act is now covering more people at less cost than most would have predicted just a few months ago. The first open enrollment period under this law ended a little over two weeks ago. And as more data comes in, we now know that the number of Americans who've signed up for private insurance in the marketplaces has grown to 8 million people. Eight million people. Thirty-five percent of people who enrolled through the federal marketplace are under the age of 35.
All told, independent experts now estimate that millions of Americans who were uninsured have gained coverage this year, with millions more to come next year and the year after.
We've also seen signs that the Affordable Care Act is bringing economic security to more Americans. Before this law added new transparency and competition to the individual market, folks who've bought insurance on their own regularly saw double-digit increases in their premiums. That was the norm.
And while we suspect that premiums will keep rising, as they have for decades, we also know that, since the law took effect, health care spending has risen more slowly than at any time in the past 50 years. In the decade before the Affordable Care Act, employer-based insurance rose almost 8 percent a year. Last year, it grew at half that rate.
Under this law, real Medicare costs per person have nearly stopped growing. The life of the Medicare trust fund has been extended by 10 years. And the independent Congressional Budget Office now expects premiums for plans on the marketplace to be 15 percent lower than originally predicted.
So those savings add up to more money that families can spend at businesses, more money that businesses can spend hiring new workers, and the CBO now says that the Affordable Care Act will be cheaper than recently projected. Lower costs from coverage provisions will shrink our deficits by an extra $100 billion.
So the bottom line is, under the Affordable Care Act, the share of Americans with insurance is up, the growth of health care costs is down, hundreds of millions of Americans who already have insurance now have new benefits and protections, from free preventive care to freedom from lifetime caps on your care. No American with a pre-existing condition like asthma or cancer can be denied coverage. No woman can be charged more just for being a woman. Those days are over.
And this thing is working. I've said before: This law won't solve all the problems in our health care system. We know we've got more work to do. But we now know for a fact that repealing the Affordable Care Act would increase the deficit, raise premiums for millions of Americans, and take insurance away from millions more, which is why, as I've said before, I find it strange that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been.
They still can't bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working. They said nobody would sign up. They were wrong about that. They said it would be unaffordable for the country. They were wrong about that. They were wrong to keep trying to repeal a law that is working when they have no alternative answer for millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions who'd be denied coverage again or every woman who'd be charged more for just being a woman again.
I know every American isn't going to agree with this law, but I think we can agree that it's well past time to move on as a country and refocus our energy on the issues that the American people are most concerned about, and that continues to be the economy, because these endless, fruitless repeal efforts come at a cost.
The 50 or so votes Republicans have taken to repeal this law could have been 50 votes to create jobs by investing in things like infrastructure or innovation, or 50 votes to make it easier for middle-class families to send their kids to college, or 50 votes to raise the minimum wage or restore unemployment insurance that they let expire for folks working hard to find a new job.
The point is, the repeal debate is and should be over. The Affordable Care Act is working. And I know the American people don't want us spending the next two-and-a-half years re-fighting the settled political battles of the last five years. They sent us here to repair our economy, to rebuild our middle class, and to restore our founding promise of opportunity, not just for a few, but for all. And as president, that's exactly what I intend to keep doing as long as I'm in this office.
Topics: Politics, Health Reform, Insurance, Marketplace
It a statement in the White House Rose Garden, the president Tuesday touted over 7 million sign-ups for health insurance on the health law's marketplaces.
Topics: Medicare, Politics
Lawmakers this week debated a series of changes to Medicare -- including payment shifts in Medicare Advantage plans and a proposed fix to how the program pays doctors. KHN's Mary Agnes Carey and Politico Pro's Jennifer Haberkorn discuss.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Welcome to Health on the Hill, I’m Mary Agnes Carey. Medicare has been a key focus for lawmakers and the Obama administration this week. There are battles over proposed payment changes to Medicare Advantage plans, and members of both parties say they want to permanently repeal a Medicare physician payment formula, but they disagree over how to finance the fix. With me today to discuss these issues is Jennifer Haberkorn of Politico Pro. Thanks for being here.
JENNIFER HABERKORN, POLITICO PRO: Thanks for having me.
MARY AGNES CAREY: First let’s start with what happened at the beginning of the week. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, also known as CMS, decided to not implement some changes to the Medicare Prescription Drug Program, which is also known as Medicare Part D. What were those changes they decided not to move forward with, and why did they make that decision?
JENNIFER HABERKORN: So, CMS had proposed changing the way that some anti-depressants and other kinds of drugs were paid for in Medicare. It got a ton of opposition from provider groups and patient advocacy organizations who really said that this was going to hurt patients on Medicare. So CMS said, "We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to hold off and potentially come back to this decision." They could come back and make some changes -- maybe come back after the election. This got a lot of political opposition, and CMS is under a lot of pressure. Like you said there’s a lot of Medicare changes going on right now and they’re facing a lot of political opposition. To that point, you were at a Medicare Advantage hearing this morning, which I think was the stage of other kinds of opposition too.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Right, we heard a lot of the same arguments we’ve heard around proposed payment changes to the Medicare Advantage program. Again these are these private plans in Medicare. Almost a third of current beneficiaries are now enrolling in them. There are some payment reductions in the Affordable Care Act. There’s also some payment adjustments that CMS wants to move forward with. There’s a lot of heat on both sides on this. You have many Republicans and some Democrats that say if you lower Medicare Advantage payments, it’s going to hurt beneficiaries and reduce choices. Other Democrats come back and say, “Now, wait a minute, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, which has these particular payment changes, that you’ve seen premiums drop, you’ve seen enrollment increase, that really the sky is not falling.” So I think this narrative that we’re going to hear now and through the elections – the final Medicare Advantage payment rates are supposed to come out on April 7 but who knows when they will actually be released. That’s the deadline but we’ll see – I just think we’re going to hear a lot of this back and forth in the weeks ahead.
Speaking of back and forth, another big Medicare issue I know you have been following is the sustainable growth rate, we call it the SGR. It’s how Medicare pays physicians. Everybody agrees they want to get rid of it, and we even have a bipartisan bill on how to get rid of it and how to change the way Medicare pays for services. But nobody can seem to figure out the “pay-fors.” A House bill is moving tomorrow. How would that finance an SGR repeal?
JENNIFER HABERKORN: The House has decided that they would pay for this by repealing the penalties in the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act for five years. That would generate savings because you don’t have to buy insurance under the law. Presumably fewer people are going to do that, and the government would have to pay fewer subsidies. Like you said, this issue is one that there’s bipartisan support for what to do and a lot of opposition over how to pay for it.
And that’s really coming to a head now because the next “doc fix” patch, as we call it, is expiring at the end of the month. So, Capitol Hill really needs to act before then. They either have to replace this permanently, which looks very unlikely at this point, or has to come up with another patch to prevent a cut to physicians who treat patients under Medicare.
We’re seeing another bill in the Senate that would take the same replacement strategy and not pay for it at all. So we’re going to see those bills come together. I think we’re going to see both the House and the Senate say, “We dealt with this, now the other chamber has to act.” It looks unlikely they’re going to come together and come up with some kind of bipartisan solution, at least before the end of the month.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Maybe we won’t get the big picture solution by the end of the month, but they do have to do a patch. Could it go through the end of the year? Are we talking about a 9-month patch? Any ideas on how they might pay for that?
JENNIFER HABERKORN: It does look like if they do a patch that it would be nine months. That would kick the next time that they have to deal with this to the lame-duck session after the next election. Those are always relatively unpredictable because you have a Congress that -- we may see the Senate flip and that would throw everything on its side. I think there’s some hope among Republicans that if that happens, that they can pay for this through additional cuts to the Affordable Care Act.
Even if the Republicans controlled the Senate, President Obama surely wouldn’t sign that into law. So there is no clear resolution in sight, but they do need to come up with a patch. Traditionally, Congress has turned to health care providers to do that, and there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t this time, too.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Alright, thanks so much Jennifer Haberkorn of Politico Pro.
JENNIFER HABERKORN: Thank you.
This article was produced by Kaiser Health News with support from The SCAN Foundation.
Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are proposing to remove some drugs from Medicare’s prescription drug plans and limit how many plans insurers can offer. KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey and CQ Roll Call’s Emily Ethridge discuss.
>> Click here to listen to audio of the conversation.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Welcome to Health on the Hill. I’m Mary Agnes Carey.
A series of proposed changes to the Medicare prescription drug program -- also known as Medicare part D -- have been getting a lot of attention on and off of Capitol Hill. Patient groups and lawmakers in both parties say easing current requirements on what drugs plan must cover could cause hardships for some patients. There’s also bipartisan opposition to a provision that would limit the number of plans insurers could offer.
With me now to discuss these issues is Emily Ethridge of CQ Roll Call. Emily, thanks so much for coming.
EMILY ETHRIDGE, CQ ROLL CALL: Thanks for having me.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Now CMS currently -- that’s the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees the Medicare part D program -- they currently require that Part D plans cover the vast majority of drugs in six specific classes. And they’re proposing to drop two of these categories next year, and another might be dropped in 2015. What are these drugs that could lose this "protected status," as they call it, and why are people so concerned about it?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: The drugs that CMS is proposing to remove from this requirement to offer are anti-depressants and immunosuppressant drugs, and the one that they’re thinking about doing later are anti-psychotic drugs. So we’ve had a lot of outcry from patient groups for the communities that take these medications saying we’ve been able to have access to all these drugs before on all our Medicare plan formularies, now we’re really worried this is going to reduce our access and reduce our ability to get the drugs we need. They really make the point that these drugs aren’t all the same. So it’s important to have a wide range of availability.
MARY AGNES CAREY: What’s CMS’s response? What’s the rationale for doing this?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: The CMS administrators have said, "We don’t have any problems with the other drugs that aren’t in these protective classes," as they call them.
There are about 140 classes of drugs that Medicare has on its formulary plan. And there are only six that are in the special categories. They’re saying "If you don’t have a problem with the other 134, we shouldn’t have any problems with a couple of these."
MARY AGNES CAREY: Did they also suggest that plans have some issue in that they can’t really leverage a discount with a drug maker if they have to offer a wide array?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Right. If you have to offer, on your plan, every single antidepressant that’s available for purchase, it makes it really hard for you to negotiate because the drug maker knows you’re required to offer that drug so they can sell it to you at a higher price.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Currently, Medicare beneficiaries who are in Part D have something like three-dozen plans, in a particular region, to choose from. CMS is proposing some limits to those number of plan offerings. Why are they doing that?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: CMS says that’s because, right now, there are just too many plans. Seniors are confused. Do they have such an overwhelming amount of information on all these plans, that it’s really hard to make a good choice? They’re not going to sit down and compare 36 plans to pick the right one. They say seniors really don’t even move plans that much, even though they have this wide array of options. They tend to stick with one and stay with it not take advantage of these different options they have.
MARY AGNES CAREY: So the idea is that these plans are somewhat duplicative and if you narrowed the choices, then people might do more comparison shopping? Is that the thought?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Right, it's can you make a smarter, better decision? Can you make this decision process easier for a senior? If you’re comparing plan one to plan two, that should be a lot simpler. It’s easier to see the differences than if you’re comparing plans one through 36.
MARY AGNES CAREY: We’ve talked about two of the proposals in this regulation. It’s a pretty big regulation. What are some of the areas that are causing some concern on the Hill?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: There is another area that is really important, which is about preferred pharmacy networks. The rule says that a plan would have to allow any pharmacy that’s willing to meet its price to participate in its preferred network. Right now plans sort of negotiate with -- and they have a certain particular pharmacy. They say you get a better deal if you go to this pharmacy. They offer better prices, because they negotiated something together.
CMS would say: If any pharmacy comes to you and offers to meet the terms of that deal, you must accept it.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Emily, one thing I’ve been wondering about this is: We know that the administration is currently embroiled in a big battle on Capitol Hill over the Affordable Care Act and its implementation. Now this particular proposal is also causing a lot of concern -- not only with Republicans but Democrats, as well.
Why do you think CMS made this proposal at this time?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: It is confusing, because it is a lot of change at a time when the Medicare situation is already changing. We heard a lot from the CMS officials about price and the cost of Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs. It’s increasing much higher than the rest of Medicare. They say this proposed rule would actually save money over ten years. And they say it would make things simpler for seniors.
They say that because of the law, in some cases, we don’t need, maybe, this many plans. The health care law is reducing that prescription drug doughnut hole, that coverage gap that we’ve all heard so much about. If that’s being made smaller, then we don’t need all these plans to fill that in -- we don’t need all these choices, and we don’t need spend money on all of these options. It’s just not necessary.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Thanks for bringing us up to date, Emily Ethridge of CQ Roll Call.
Topics: Politics, Health Reform, Insurance, Marketplace, Women's Health
President Obama used Tuesday night's annual State of the Union address to urge more Americans to enroll in the new insurance exchanges.
The video excerpt above includes the president's remarks about health policy and the rollout of the 2010 health law.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One last point on financial security. For decades, few things exposed hard-working families to economic hardship more than a broken health care system. And in case you haven’t heard: We’re in the process of fixing that.
A pre-existing condition used to mean that someone like Amanda Shelley, a physician assistant and single mom from Arizona, couldn’t get health insurance. But on January 1, she got covered. On January 3, she felt a sharp pain. On January 6, she had emergency surgery. Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would have meant bankruptcy.
That’s what health insurance reform is all about: the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything.
Already, because of the Affordable Care Act, more than three million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents’ plans.
More than nine million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage. Nine million.
And here’s another number: zero. Because of this law, no American - none, zero - can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a preexisting condition like asthma, or back pain, or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more just because she’s a woman. And we did all this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.
Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first forty were plenty. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.
And if you want to know the real impact this law is having, just talk to Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, who’s here tonight. Now, Kentucky is not the most liberal part of the country. That's not where I got my highest vote totals. But he’s like a man possessed when it comes to covering his commonwealth’s families. “They are our friends and neighbors,” he said. “They are people we shop and go to church with: farmers out on the tractors, grocery clerks. They are people who go to work every morning praying they don’t get sick. No one deserves to live that way.”
Steve’s right. That’s why, tonight, I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31. Help them get covered. Moms, get on your kids to sign up. Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application. It'll give her some peace of mind – plus, she’ll appreciate hearing from you.
President Obama announced Thursday that insurers will be permitted to extend canceled insurance policies into 2014, due to the difficulties consumers are having enrolling in new insurance coverage through the new online marketplaces.
More coverage: Obama Offers Fix For Insurance Plan Cancellations
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ... It has now been six weeks since the Affordable Care Act's new marketplaces opened for business. I think it's fair to say that the roll out has been tough so far, and I think everybody understands that I'm not happy about the fact that the roll out has been, you know, wrought with a whole range of problems that I've been deeply concerned about.
But today, I want to talk about what we know after these first few weeks and what we're doing to implement and improve the law. Yesterday, the White House announced that in the first month more than 100,000 Americans successfully enrolled in new insurance plans.
Is that as high a number as we'd like? Absolutely not.
But, it does mean that people want affordable health care. The problems of the website have prevented too many Americans from completing the enrollment process, and that's on us, not on them. But, there's no question that there's real demand for quality affordable health insurance.
In the first month, nearly a million people successfully completed an application for themselves or their families, those applications represent more than 1.5 million people. Of those 1.5 million, 106,000 of them have successfully signed up to get covered. Another 396,000 have the ability to gain access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That's been less reported on, but it shouldn't be. Americans who are having a difficult time, who are poor, many of them working, may have a disability -- they're Americans like everybody else. And the fact that they are now able to get insurance is going to be critically important.
Later today, I'll be in Ohio where Governor Kasich, a Republican, has expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. And as many as 275,000 Ohioans will ultimately be better off because of it. And if every governor followed suit, another 5.4 million Americans could gain access to health care next year.
So, the bottom line is in just one month, despite all the problems that we've seen with the website, more than 500,000 Americans could know the security of health care by January 1, many of them for the first time in their lives. And that's life-changing and it's significant.
That still leaves about 1 million Americans who successfully made it through the website, now qualified by insurance, but haven't picked a plan yet. And there's no question that if the website were working as it's supposed to, that number would be much higher of people who've actually enrolled. So that's problem number one, making sure that the website works the way it's supposed to.
It's gotten a lot better over the last few weeks than it was on the first day, but we're working 24/7 to get it working for the vast majority of Americans in a smooth, consistent way.
The other problem that has received a lot of attention concerns Americans who've received letters from their insurers that they may be losing the plans they bought in the old individual market, often because they no longer meet the law's requirements to cover basic benefits like prescription drugs or doctor's visits.
Now, as I indicated earlier, I completely get how upsetting this can be for a lot of Americans, particularly after assurances they heard from me that if they had a plan that they liked, they could keep it.
And, to those Americans, I hear you loud and clear. I said that I would do everything we can to fix this problem, and today I'm offering an idea that will help do it.
Already, people who have plans that pre-date the Affordable Care Act can keep those plans, if they haven't changed. That was already in the law. That's what's called a grandfather clause. It was included in the law.
Today, we're gonna extend that principle both to people whose plans have changed since the law took effect and to people who bought plans since the law took effect.
So state insurance commissioners still have the power to decide what plans can and can't be sold in their states, but the bottom line is insurers can extend current plans that would otherwise be canceled into 2014, and Americans whose plans have been canceled can choose to re-enroll in the same kind of plan.
We're also requiring insurers to extend current plans to inform their customers about two things. One, what protections these renewed plans don't include. Number two, that the marketplace offers new options with better coverage and tax credits that might help you bring down the cost.
So, if you received one of these letters, I'd encourage you to take a look at the marketplace. Even if the Web site isn't working as smoothly as it should be for everybody yet, the plan comparison tool that lets you browse costs for new plans near you is working just fine.
Now, this fix won't solve every problem for every person. But it's gonna help a lot of people. Doing more will require work with Congress. And I've said from the beginning, I'm willing to work with Democrats and Republicans to fix problems as they arise. This is an example of what I was talking about. We can always make this law work better.
It is important to understand, though, that the old individual market was not working well. And it's important that we don't pretend that somehow that's a place worth going back to. Too often, it works fine, as long as you stay healthy. It doesn't work well when you're sick.
So year after year, Americans were routinely exposed to financial ruin or denied coverage due to minor pre-existing conditions or dropped from coverage altogether, even if they paid their premiums on time. That's one of the reasons we pursued this reform in the first place. And that's why I will not accept proposals that are just another brazen attempt to undermine or repeal the overall law and drag us back into a broken system.
We will continue to make the case -- even the folks who choose to keep their own plans -- that they should shop around in the new marketplace, because there's a good chance that they'll be able to buy better insurance at lower cost.
So we're going to do everything we can to help the Americans who've received these cancellation notices. But I also want everybody to remember, there are still 40 million Americans who don't have health insurance at all. I'm not going to walk away from 40 million people who have the chance to get health insurance for the first time, and I'm not going to walk away from something that has helped the cost of health care grow at its slowest rate in 50 years.
So we're at the opening weeks of the project to build a better health care system for everybody, a system that will offer real financial security and peace of mind to millions of Americans.
It is a complex process. There are all kinds of challenges. I'm sure there will be additional challenges that come up. And it's important that we're honest and straightforward in terms, when we come up with a problem with these reforms and these laws, that we address them.
But we've got to move forward on this. It took 100 years for us to even get to the point where we could start talking about and implementing a law to make sure everybody's got health insurance. And my pledge to the American people is, is that we're going to solve the problems that are there, we're going to get it right, and the Affordable Care Act is going to work for the American people.
Topics: Health Reform, Politics, Insurance, Marketplace
President Barack Obama discussed the rollout of the federal health law in a White House speech Monday. In the excerpt above, he discusses the technical problems with the federal health insurance marketplace website and what his administration is doing to help consumers get enrolled in an insurance plan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The point is the essence of the law -- the health insurance that's available to people -- is working just fine. In some cases, actually, it's exceeding expectations. The prices are lower than we expected, the choice is greater than we expected.
But the problem has been that the website that's supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. And there's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am, because -- precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work, I want the checkout lines to be smooth because I want people to be able to get this great product.
And there's no excuse for the problems. And these problems are getting fixed. But while we're working out the kinks in the system, I want everybody to understand the nature of the problem.
First of all, even with all the problems at healthcare.gov, the website is still working for a lot of people, just not as quick or efficient or consistent as we want.
And although many of these folks have found that they had to wait longer than they wanted, once they complete the process, they're very happy with the deal that's available to them, just like Janice is.
Second, I want everybody to remember that we're only three weeks into a six-month open enrollment period when you can buy these new plans.
Keep in mind, the insurance doesn't start until Jan. 1. That's the earliest that the insurance can kick in. No one who decides to purchase a plan has to pay their first premium until Dec. 15. And unlike the day after Thanksgiving sales for the latest Play Station or flatscreen TVs, the insurance plans don't run out. They're not going to sell out. They'll be available through the marketplace throughout the open-enrollment period. The prices that insurers have set will not change. So everybody who wants insurance through the marketplace will get insurance. Period. Everybody who wants insurance through the marketplace will get insurance.
Third, we are doing everything we can possibly do to get the websites working better, faster, sooner. We've got people working overtime, 24/7, to boost capacity and address the problems. Experts from some of America's top private sector tech companies who, by the way, have seen things like this happen before -- they want it to work. They're reaching out; they're offering to send help.
We've had some of the best I.T. talent in the entire country join the team. And we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem. And we are confident that we will get all the problems fixed.
Number four, while the website will ultimately be the easiest way to buy insurance through the marketplace, it isn't the only way. Now, I want to emphasize this: Even as we redouble our efforts to get the site working as well as it's supposed to, we're also redoubling our efforts to make sure you can still buy the same quality, affordable insurance plans available on the marketplace the old- fashioned way, off-line, either over the phone or in person.
And, by the way, there are a lot of people who want to take advantage of this who are more comfortable working on the phone, anyway, or in person.
So, let me go through the specifics as to how you can do that, if you're having problems with the website, or you just prefer dealing with a person.
Yesterday, we updated the website's home page to offer more information about the other avenues to enroll in affordable health care until the online option works for everybody. So, you'll find information about how to talk to a specialist who can help you apply over the phone, or to receive a downloadable application you can fill out yourself and mail in.
We've also added more staff to the call centers where you can apply for insurance over the phone. Those are already, they've been working, but a lot of people have decided first to go to the website.
But keep in mind, these call centers are already up and running. And you can get your questions answered by real people 24 hours a day, in 150 different languages.
The phone number for these call centers is 1-800-318-2596. I want to repeat that, 1-800-318-2596.
Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far on the call centers, although I admit that the wait times probably might go up a little bit now that I've read the number out loud on national television.
But the point is, the call centers are available. You can talk to somebody directly, and they can walk you through the application process. And I guarantee, if one thing's worth the wait it's the safety and security of health care that you can afford or the amount of money that you can save by buying health insurance through the marketplaces.
Once you get on phone with a trained representative, it usually takes about 25 minutes for an individual to apply for coverage, about 45 minutes for a family. Once you apply for coverage, you'll be contacted by mail -- by email or postal mail about your coverage status.
But you don't have to just go through the phone. You can also apply in person with the help of local navigators. These are people especially trained to help you sign up for health care and they exist all across the country. Or you can go to community health centers and hospitals.
Just visit localhelp.healthcare.gov to find out where in your area you can get help and apply for insurance in person.
And finally, if you've already tried to apply through the website and you've been stuck somewhere along the way, do not worry. In the coming weeks, we will contact you directly, personally with a concrete recommendation for how you can complete your application, shop for coverage, pick a plan that meets your needs and get covered once and for all.
So here's the bottom line: the product, the health insurance is good. The prices are good. It is a good deal. People don't just want it, they're showing up to buy it. Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn't working as well as it should, which means it's going to get fixed.
And in the meantime, you can bypass the website and apply by phone or in person. So don't let problems with the website deter you from signing up or signing your family up or showing your friends how to sign up, because it is worth it. It will save you money. If you don't have health insurance, if you've got a pre-existing condition, it will save you money, and it will give you the security that your family needs.
In fact, even with the website issues, we've actually made the overall process of buying insurance through the marketplace a lot smoother and easier than the old way of buying insurance on your own. Part of the challenge here is that a lot of people may not remember what it's like to buy insurance the traditional way.
The way we've set it up, there are no more absurdly long application forms, there's no medical history questionnaire that goes on for pages and pages, there's no more getting denied because you've had a pre-existing condition. Instead of contacting a bunch of different insurers one at a time, which is what Janice and a lot of people who were shopping on the individual market for health insurance had to do, there's one single place you can go shop and compare plans that have to compete for your business. There's one single phone number you can call for help.
And once the kinks in the website have been ironed out, it will be even smoother and even easier. But in the meantime, we will help you sign up, because consumers want to buy this product and insurance companies want to sell it to you.
Topics: Health Reform, Marketplace, Insurance, Insuring Your Health
Insuring Your Health columnist Michelle Andrews helps you navigate the new insurance marketplaces that are scheduled to launch on Oct. 1.
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Q: Is everyone who qualifies treated the same in this new marketplace? Do younger people get lower rates and people with pre-existing conditions get higher rates?
A: Starting next year, no one can be charged higher rates for health insurance because they have pre-existing medical conditions. But there are a few other individual details that insurers can factor in when setting premiums, including age and tobacco use. The law allows premiums for older people to be up to three times higher than those of younger people. That may seem like a lot, but in plans currently sold on the individual market, the differential between the two is often much greater.
The law also allows insurers to charge smokers 50 percent higher premiums for coverage on the exchanges than non-smokers. Smokers do tend to have higher health care costs than non-smokers. Still, a handful of states have decided not to implement this surcharge. They figure that the higher premiums may make coverage unaffordable for some smokers, who typically have lower incomes in the first place. Besides, they say, evidence is scant that charging people more for health insurance actually encourages them quit smoking.
More From This Series: Shopping For Coverage
More Consumer Topics: Insuring Your Health
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Q: When must a consumer enroll in an exchange in order to start getting insurance benefits in January, 2014?
A: The online marketplaces will open for business on Oct. 1. That's when people will be able to begin checking out the health plans that are available in their area and signing up. The open enrollment period will run through March of 2014. If you want coverage to begin on Jan. 1, though, you'll generally need to sign up by Dec. 15 of this year, although some states may allow you a little more time. Still, consumer advocates that I've spoken with say that it's probably not a good idea to put off applying for coverage until the last minute, because during this first year of operation the exchanges will probably be working out some kinks and the process may take longer than expected.
Q: How does someone qualify to enroll in a marketplace? Are the rules the same in every state?
A: Almost anyone can shop for health insurance through the online state marketplaces, sometimes called exchanges, that will open in October. The only real exception is immigrants who are in this country illegally. They can't buy coverage on the exchanges under any circumstances. That's true whether your state is running its own exchange or letting the federal government do so.
Even though practically anyone can shop for coverage on a state exchange, only certain people will qualify for subsidies to make coverage more affordable there. Subsidies will be available to people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. That's about $46,000 for one person or $94,000 for a family of four.
Subsidies will only be available to people who don't have good coverage available elsewhere. So if you're eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, you can't get subsidies on the exchanges. Likewise, if your employer offers good coverage you won't qualify for subsidies. Good coverage in this case means a plan that doesn't cost more than 9 1/2 percent of your income and pays at least 60 percent of your covered medical expenses. If your employer plan comes up short in either of those areas, you could qualify for subsidized coverage on an exchange.
Topics: Politics, Health Reform, Medicare, Health Costs
With the Congressional Budget Office projecting a reduced cost for a long-term "doc fix," Congress may seize the opportunity to end the annual adjustments to Medicare reimbursement rates. Mary Agnes Carey and CQ Roll Call's Emily Ethridge discuss.
>> Listen to their conversation here.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Welcome to Health on the Hill. I’m Mary Agnes Carey. Amid the partisan battles over the 2010 health care law known as Obamacare, lawmakers may be close to bipartisan consensus on another health care issue – overhauling how Medicare pays physicians. Three Capitol Hill committees are discussing how to replace the “Sustainable Growth Rate” – known as the SGR. For years, Congress has passed last-minute patches to the formula to prevent Medicare physician payment cuts. And while there isn’t a unified approach or agreement on how to finance a fix, many analysts say Congress appears closer than ever to replacing the SGR. With us to discuss the latest developments is Emily Ethridge, a health care reporter for CQ Roll Call. Hi Emily.
EMILY ETHRIDGE, CQ ROLL CALL: Hi Mary Agnes.
MARY AGNES CAREY: It’s great to have you here.
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Thanks for having me.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Sure. Give us a little bit of background on the Medicare SGR. When was it created, what was its purpose, and why are people talking about repealing it?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: So this was part of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. If you go all the way back to then, and we really thought this was a formula that would keep the payment rates for Medicare physicians more in line with the overall growth of the economy. For a few years, it worked out pretty well. For the first five years, it seemed OK. It basically puts a limit on how much physician payments can grow.
Around 2002, things started to get bad. It started calling for cuts. Every year since 2002, it has called for more and more cuts. Drastic – now I think it’s about 25 percent cuts to Medicare physicians if we let this formula take place. However, Congress hasn’t let it actually take place in the past 10 years. They keep doing these short-term patches, which is what everyone knows as the “doc fix.” That makes it actually more expensive every time they don’t let the cuts happen, they give physicians instead this tiny little raise and that means that every year the formula calls for deeper and deeper cuts.
MARY AGNES CAREY: So, as we know, before the August break, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill to repeal and replace the SGR. How would that measure work and how would they pay for it?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: We don’t know how they’ll pay for it and that is the biggest sticking point right now. That is going to be the thing that really makes or breaks whether this bill happens. Because it’s a pretty big price tag. Only repealing the SGR – just taking away the SGR for 10 years – is about $140 billion. That’s doing that without doing anything else you might want to do. Any other kind of payment models, any other Medicare reforms you might want to try to make. So we’re looking at a pretty big price tag on this bill and right now we have no idea how they make up for that cost.
But the Energy and Commerce bill, it would get rid of the SGR which is a huge goal for everybody. Then we would have a little transition period of five years, where they would just set small payment updates for all Medicare physicians. Then after that, physicians would be able to move into these alternative payment models. The idea here is to get away from the “fee-for-service” Medicare that most stakeholders and health care economists really hate.
MARY AGNES CAREY: That’s traditional Medicare.
EMILY ETHRIDGE: That’s traditional Medicare, that’s what we have now, fee-for-service. You perform a service, Medicare pays the doctor. People say it encourages volume of services over really good quality care. So they would try to put in these new models, under the Energy and Commerce bill, to get away from that and start rewarding the quality of care. Or having better outcomes while saving money for Medicare overall.
MARY AGNES CAREY: And also, there are other committees. In the House, we have the Ways and Means Committee working on the issue. In the Senate, it’s the Finance Committee. Do we know enough now to tell how those approaches might be different from each other and from what Energy and Commerce has done?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Everyone says Energy and Commerce has a pretty good base of a bill and they like it. However, those other committees don’t like it enough to say that we’re just going to take that up, maybe make a few tweaks here and there and send it along on its way, which would be the fastest option. They seem to each have more, bigger changes in mind. Everyone really wants to put their own stamp on this bill. So I feel like we’re going to get similar-looking bills but not the exact same bill from all three committees.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Now as we both know -- you and I have reported on this for years -- the SGR has been with us for a long time. What’s the reason for all this momentum right now, and is this Congress really going to act to make a change?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: As you said this is really the closest we’ve ever gotten to having the SGR go away. The Energy and Commerce Committee marking up a bill and approving it unanimously – 51 to 0 – so it’s bipartisan support to get rid of this – is farther than we’ve ever come in the history of the SGR. The reason that really put the momentum behind this is, yes, Congress has been working on this for a long time, but earlier this year we got a very favorable score from the CBO, that $140 billion I mentioned earlier. That’s the lowest score, the lowest price tag for getting rid of the SGR that we’ve ever seen, really, in the past, I’d say, five years. So everyone said basically it’s a fire sale on the SGR. Let’s go for it and strike while the iron’s hot. Get rid of this before CBO changes its mind.
MARY AGNES CAREY: While it’s only $140 billion in Washington language it still is a $140 billion. So what are the likely ways for financing? What are the options?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Traditionally, when they do these small patches they take money out of Medicare somewhere else. They find other ways to cut provider payments elsewhere, maybe cut specialty doctors instead of physicians, or hospitals. They look to Medicare to try to move money from one pile to another. That could definitely happen here, although again $140 billion, plus more most likely, is a big ask. Republicans would love to cut that money from the health care law, from the overhaul, I don’t really think Democrats will be on board with that, but maybe if they could get some of it from it from the health care law, that might be part of a bigger compromise that could happen.
There’s also a lot of talk about tax reform -- tax code overhaul – in some of these committees right now, in Ways & Means and Finance. So it’s possible they might find some things in the tax code that produce savings, and they might just tack that on to pay for it instead.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Speaking of the health care law, we know the House Republicans voted several times to defund all or part of that measure. Are we going to see more of those votes this fall?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: I definitely expect to see more votes in the House on repealing or trying to de-fund the health care law. Right now you have a big group of Republicans who want to de-fund the law – stop it all together – and are willing to put some things at risk to get that to happen.
You don’t have House leadership on board with that yet, and we really haven’t reached a critical mass of those Republicans who want to de-fund the law yet. It’s about a third of the House Republican caucus. So it remains to be seen whether we actually will see that vote this month or possibly next month. But it’s something they’re really working on. And I think if they don’t get that de-fund vote, they’ll get some other repeal votes or delay votes just to keep everybody satisfied.
MARY AGNES CAREY: And I think you’re talking here in the sense of de-funding as part of the continuing resolution to fund the government, correct?
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Right. Exactly.
MARY AGNES CAREY: So if that one doesn’t occur, you may see some more of these rifle shots to de-fund pieces of the ACA.
EMILY ETHRIDGE: Especially when we have a debt ceiling fight again in October, this could certainly come up as part of that.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Thanks so much, Emily Ethridge of CQ Roll Call.
EMILY ETHRIDGE: You’re welcome, thank you.
This was produced by Kaiser Health News with support from The SCAN Foundation.
© 2014 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.