It's been roughly five weeks since open enrollment kicked off for a second year under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and all signs point to a much smoother transition in the 2014-2015 enrollment period compared to this time last year.
Based on enrollment data from the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1 million people had selected plans through the federal exchange, Healthcare.gov, during the first three weeks. Comparably, it took three months to hit 1 million enrollees in the 2013-2014 enrollment period. It shows just how critical improving the software, accessibility, and education behind the healthcare reform law truly is.
But not everything is perfect. This year brings with it a number of new challenges for marketplace operators as well as insurers. Not only do they need to attract the remaining uninsured -- which is easier said than done with the "easy" enrollees jumping at the chance to be enrolled with a subsidy or for free thanks to the Medicaid expansion -- but they need ensure that the 6.7 million people who were insured as of mid-October through Obamacare re-enroll in 2015.
What it's like to re-enroll in Obamacare
With that in mind, and with the Dec. 15 deadline to re-enroll and be covered by Jan. 1, 2015, bearing down on me this past weekend, I decided it was time to re-enroll myself for healthcare in my home state of Washington (a state-run exchange). Let me walk you through what it was like re-enrolling for health insurance on my end so you can get a better feel for what might be going right and wrong with the process as a whole.
If I had to sum up my enrollment experience in just a few short words I would refer to it as "overly complicated." As a single person with no dependents my re-enrollment should be an absolute breeze. But the information I received through the mail and electronically via Washington Health Plan Finder and my current insurer, Coordinated Care, a Centene (NYSE:CNC) company, weren't spelled out perfectly.
A mixed picture
WA Health Plan Finder sent an email and paper copy back in November stating that I'd need to "sign into my account and select 'Update my application and renew coverage.'" Upon getting into my account no such icon or tab existed. Instead, my options were to back out of my individualized page and shop for a plan directly from the home page, or to "create another application," which I assumed to mean reapply my pertinent paperwork. Since little immediate direction by the website was provided I took to browsing health plans directly from the home page.
The good news: There were certainly more plans being offered in the bronze and silver category than last year, demonstrating that more insurers and more plans from existing insurers are available for cost-conscious consumers this year. Another solid find was that my plan from last year had actually moved fractionally lower by $0.60 per month. Yes, I'm aware that's only $7 in annual premium savings, but considering that health insurance premiums have outpaced inflation for decades I'll take a decline in my premium with open arms. There were also two plans cheaper than the plan I chose last year -- both from Centene's Coordinated Care -- although I chose to stick with my current plan as it offered three co-pay free visits each year while the cheapest plan did not.
Coordinated Care's correspondence, on the other hand, was quite clear that I "didn't have to do anything" if I wanted to remain enrolled in the same health plan in 2015. What you don't find until page two of that correspondence, though, is that you still need to update your information with WA Health Plan Finder even if you don't want to change health benefits providers.
Ultimately Centene and my state exchange are working toward the same goal of getting me to update my basic information to see if I qualify for any subsidies. Centene was trying its hardest to get me to re-enroll with it (which it succeed in doing), but the guidance given by both the exchange and the provider made things confusing for me, which is really concerning since I consider myself very knowledgeable on the subject of Obamacare.
Key re-enrollment takeaways
Understandably, this was just a single re-enrollment, and your process could very well be different from mine, for better or for worse. Still, following my re-enrollment for 2015, I was able to walk away with a couple of key takeaways.
- You need to shop around to get the best deal: It was quite noticeable that the bronze and silver tiers had more plans to choose from this year. I didn't particularly notice new participants so much as new options from existing participants, such as Centene. The result of these extra choices is that the consumer could find a better deal than they found last year. The HHS notes that consumers could cumulatively save $2 billion if they all shopped around and chose the cheapest plan in their metal tier of choice. Based on year-end enrollment projections that works out to about $300 per year, per person.
- The best deal may not be the cheapest plan: On the flip side, the lesson here is that the cheapest plan may not always be your best choice. For example, in my case, I could get what would normally be a $40 office visit waived up to three times a year for $191 a month or no office visit fees waived for $186. I don't frequent the doctor often, but when I go I'd rather not have to pay an upfront copay, so the $191 plan offered the better value to me. Consumers need to remember that a good price and a good value are potentially two different things when shopping for health insurance.
- The process is overly complicated: Lastly, the process of re-enrolling is confusing since the re-enrollment process can differ from state to state. Some states require very little action to be covered again while others require consumers to visit their health exchange and practically start anew. This nonuniversal renewal process could lead to consumers missing the Dec. 15 deadline to gain coverage or change plans before Jan. 1, 2015, and it may even wind up further hurting sentiment toward Obamacare.
By March we should have a better idea whether or not insurers successfully re-enrolled a significant number of their members from 2013-2014 or if a combination of pricing and re-enrollment confusion got the better of them. However, if my experience serves as any indication, it could be a year filled with a lot of missed deadlines.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.