New Mexico health insurance exchange goes live

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico launched an online marketplace for health insurance that enrolled 170 business customers on Tuesday, but individuals struggled with problems trying to use a federal exchange, according to state officials and health care advocates.

New Mexico took a “hybrid” approach to the online marketplace — implementing a state-run computer system to sign up small businesses but initially relying on a federal website to handle individuals.

New Mexico exchange executive director Mike Nunez said it was “great day” for the opening of the state-run exchange for businesses. But he acknowledged that individuals had difficulty accessing the federal exchange and encountered long wait times if they called a federal toll-free number for assistance.

Three dozen states, including New Mexico, used the federal government’s exchange for all or part of the marketplace that’s supposed to allow consumers to easily shop and compare prices for health care plans from private insurers.

“I think everybody has to have patience with everyone as we move forward,” Nunez said.

Dorianne Mason, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the group received reports that some health centers weren’t able to provide in-person assistance to individuals because of problems with the federal exchange.

More than 200 clinics and hospitals across the state are to provide “health care guides” that can assist individuals with enrollment.

“Of all the people serving as these guides, I really do not think it is their fault. It’s just that everything has been extremely rushed,” said Mason. “I think there is a lot of misinformation out there because of the time crunch, and I think probably by Nov. 1 all of this stuff, a majority of it hopefully, will have resolved itself because they’ll have more adequate training and a better understanding of what they’re supposed to be telling people.”

Nunez said he was pleased with the New Mexico exchange and a toll-free call center set up by the state.

The average wait time for callers was not quite two and a half minutes, he said, and the operation fielded fewer than 200 calls by late afternoon.

Nunez said 29 small businesses — those with 50 or fewer workers — signed up through the state exchange during its first 45 minutes. By establishing accounts through the exchange, the employers cleared the way for workers to start selecting insurance plans next month.

New Mexico began work in May to establish its exchange, and officials decided to use a federal online system for individuals because there wasn’t enough time to prepare a state-run own computer system for the expected heavy demand from individuals.

Barbara Webber, executive director of Health Action New Mexico, said her group tracked the exchange as well as the state’s efforts on Tuesday to start enrolling low-income adults through an expansion of Medicaid.

“It looks like people are handling it well,” Webber said.

Nearly a fourth of the state’s population lacks health insurance, according to the Census Bureau — among the highest rates in the nation.

About 80,000 New Mexicans are expected to enroll in health plans they obtain from private insurers through the exchange in its first year.

The state anticipates an additional 133,000 uninsured New Mexicans will gain medical coverage through an expansion of Medicaid, which starts in January under terms of the federal health care overhaul that also provided for the online insurance marketplace.

“It’s been a bumpy start, which is not unusual. It’s more on the fed side than our side, for sure,” said Dr. J. R. Damron, a Santa Fe physician and chairman of the exchange’s governing board.

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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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