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W.Va. health marketplace 'overwhelmed' on first day

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians trying to sign up online for health insurance through the state's expanded Medicaid program or the Health Insurance Marketplace "overwhelmed" West Virginia's system on the first day of open enrollment, causing it to shut down for a time.

Those who tried using the state's call center to enroll had to wait up to 15 minutes to enroll, Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said during a news conference Tuesday.

A spokesman for the state's Office of the Insurance Commissioner said the website slowed down because a lot of people tried to use it. It wasn't clear Tuesday how many people used the website to either purchase a plan or find out more information.

Open enrollment began Tuesday and will continue through March 2014. Coverage for both Medicaid and plans under the Health Insurance Exchange will begin in January.

Despite a federal government shutdown, the Affordable Care Act has been funded and will not be affected, Bryant said.

Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is the only insurance company in West Virginia to offer plans on the Health Insurance Marketplace. There are 13 plans total in the marketplace, but two are multi-state plans by the Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Fred Earley, president of Highmark, said. Highmark West Virginia will offer 11 different insurance plans, he said.

Plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace are divided into categories: platinum, gold, silver and bronze.

Platinum plans have the highest premiums and lowest out-of-pocket costs. Bronze plans have the lowest premiums and the highest out-of-pocket costs.

Highmark will not offer platinum plans because West Virginians don't typically buy those types of plans in the private market, Earley said. State residents typically buy gold, silver, bronze or catastrophic-type plans, he said.

"That's what we decided to focus to best meet the needs of the West Virginia demographic as determined by prior purchasing patterns," Earley said.

Earley disagreed with some who speculated that with only one insurer in the marketplace, West Virginia's rates would be higher than if more companies had joined. The rates were set in June, when Highmark officials thought there would be a variety of companies in the marketplace, he said.

"I think it's fair to say there are competitive rates for competitive plans in the West Virginia Marketplace and I encourage people to look at them," Earley said.

Rates vary by age and which of six areas in the state a person lives in, Earley said. There are also different rates for tobacco and non-tobacco users, he said.

People can compare rates for insurance plans at healthcare.gov.

According to a state-commissioned report from CCRC Actuaries, 128,000 uninsured people in West Virginia are expected to get health coverage in 2013. Kanawha County has 24,979 uninsured people, but that number is expected to decrease by 17,262 by 2016 under the Affordable Care Act.

Almost 50,000 SNAP recipients and parents of children enrolled in Medicaid responded to letters from the Department of Health and Human Resources asking them if they, if eligible, wanted to automatically enroll in Medicaid, Bryant said.

Dr. Dan Foster, a Charleston physician and former state legislator, said the implementation of Medicaid expansion and enrollment into the Marketplace is great news for him as a doctor.

Each year between 18,000 and 20,000 Americans die because they don't have health insurance, Foster said.

"That's four West Virginians a week," Foster said. He gave a personal story of a friend without health insurance who fell and cracked some of his ribs, developed pneumonia and ultimately died because he didn't have health insurance.

People die due to lack of health insurance every day, Foster said.

"These are the folks we're going to help," he said. 

Sherri Ferrell, chief financial and operating officer for the West Virginia Primary Care Association, said community health centers will play a major role in helping enroll the uninsured. The health centers care for one in five state resident and will have certified application counselors on hand to help enroll people, Ferrell said.

WVFree, a reproductive rights organization, developed a new website -- goenrollwv.org -- aimed at informing younger people about the marketplace and getting them enrolled, said Camilla Eubanks, research and development director for the agency.

Insured people can sign up for Medicaid or a plan in the Marketplace online at healthcare.gov, by calling 1-800-318-2596, at a DHHR office or by mailing in an application.

Healthcare.gov listed 84 places including hospitals, health clinics and county DHHR offices in the Charleston area where uninsured people can go for help enrolling in health insurance. To find help with the application, visit https://localhelp.healthcare.gov/.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office set up a tip line for those who have concerns about identity theft when signing up for health insurance and Medicaid. People with concerns about enrolling can call 800-368-8808 and ask to speak with a health care specialist.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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