Checking In On The New Health Insurance Marketplaces

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 4, 2013 4:43 pm

This week, the online insurance marketplaces created by the new health care law launched across the country. Here & Now checks in on Washington state, where the new marketplace is called the Washington Health Plan Finder.

The site acts as an application portal for Medicaid, in addition to selling competing insurance plans with federal subsidies.

Washington is one of the states that has expanded its Medicaid coverage, allowing people who make a little more money than the original threshold to qualify.

Carrie Vanzant is the regional vice president of medical operations at Sea Mar Community Health Centers — the largest community health center in the state, serving 14 counties.

Sea Mar had a million doctors visits last year, 40 percent with uninsured patients.

To assist with the insurance sign-up, Sea Mar has opened computer kiosks at several of its locations, and is providing navigators to assist members of the community through the complicated system.

Here & Now speaks with Carrie Vanzant about how things are going.


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It's HERE AND NOW. Computer gremlins continue to plague the online health care marketplaces set up under the Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration says too many people are signing up, but a software developer told Kaiser Health News that there may also be problems with the software.

Well, we want to check in on one state. In Washington state, thousands of people are exploring both expanded Medicaid and private insurance, but the system was overwhelmed the first couple of days. The nonprofit Sea Mar Community Health Centers - 28 across the state serving people without insurance - are helping. Carrie Vanzant is regional vice president. She joins us from KUOW in Seattle. Carrie, did you go online, day one?

CARRIE VANZANT: You bet I did. So I was there first thing in the morning at one of our clinics in Seattle, and had seen that the system went down pretty quickly. And then it was off and on for a little bit, and then it just absolutely couldn't access it.

YOUNG: So what did that feel like? I mean, you got a sense, I'm sure, of how users felt.

VANZANT: It was discouraging. We have heard hype about it and had all been excited about it for a long time coming. And, you know, the day one that it happens and goes live, in the first few hours, and it fails, it was disheartening.

YOUNG: What happened?

VANZANT: I'm not sure that we really know yet what has happened. We've heard reports initially that it was the excessive volume. And then we heard an update after that that it didn't have to do with the excessive volume. The good news is that the system is back up and operating now.

YOUNG: And we understand that you, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, set up kiosks across the state. Where are they, and what's at them?

VANZANT: We have set up kiosks within our medical clinics, and they are self-service stations that allow for community members to sit down and access - via the computer and the Internet - the health plan finder website to identify which health coverage might be best for them.

YOUNG: Well, what a great idea, because I've been thinking - as we've been reporting on these marketplaces and all the technical glitches - that not everybody has computers to sign up online. So you are offering computers at these kiosks. How many people are signing up? Can you tell?

VANZANT: We've had, I think, initially, 50 folks that signed up on the first particular day, and these numbers were actually lower than what we had anticipated.

YOUNG: Why do you think that is?

VANZANT: I think that the outreach and the communication has been confusing and really maybe not embraced or understood by the general public. It's just not unusual, unfortunately, for folks such as the Development Task Force to not focus on the disparities and create material that is released at the exact time for non-English-speaking populations.

YOUNG: So the material for the non-English-speaking population didn't get out there soon enough. So, right now, you've got 50 people-ish, you know, around who have signed up for the expanded Medicaid. Do you have any sense of the people who are buying insurance from the marketplaces?

VANZANT: So, the folks that are buying the insurances - or signing up for it, anyway - to enroll, they won't find out whether they're eligible or not until a couple of months. But, you know, they're your neighbors. They're folks just like you and I. They're folks that aren't receiving insurance through their current employer. It's also folks that have, in the past, been denied because of having some sort of a health ailment that disqualified them in previous attempts to become eligible for health insurance.

YOUNG: Well, we hear that as of the 2nd, 6,385 user accounts had been created - as you said, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to qualify, but people opened up user accounts - which means you only have about 994,000 more Washingtonians to go. And we know that the governor has pledge a six-month, all-hands-on-deck approach to enroll something like a million people who are uninsured in the state. Do you think that's going to happen?

VANZANT: You know what? I think Sea Mar is going to make a huge dent in making that happen. Within the 14 counties that we serve, we have an obligation to sign up 7,000 per the 14 counties. And how we're doing it is we're calling folks that, in the history, have come to us and applied and not been eligible or received the health care coverage. And we're also identifying people, when they walk into the door today, for the first time ever, and having them sit down at the self-service station, the kiosk station and/or to be handheld through the system, navigating a very complex system of medical care coverage so that they can identify what they're eligible for and hopefully sign up and be approved for it.

YOUNG: Carrie Vanzant, regional vice president of medical operations at Sea Mar Community Health Centers, speaking to us from Seattle. Carrie, thanks so much.

VANZANT: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.