NH health centers ready for newly-insured patients

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Most major pieces of the federal health overhaul are now in effect, but officials at several of New Hampshire’s community health centers said Thursday they’re not seeing a spike in appointments for newly insured patients.

Instead, they say while there has been a steady increase in patients seeking help with enrollment since the new online insurance markets opened in October, many are still exploring their options.

Ed Shanshala, director of Ammonoosuc Community Health Services, said nearly 400 people have sought help with understanding the law at the agency’s five sites in northern New Hampshire, and about 70 have submitted applications. Aside from the headaches associated with the healthcare.gov website glitches, the paperwork has been manageable, he said.

As of Jan. 1, insurers can no longer deny coverage due to pre-existing medical conditions, all new insurance policies must offer a minimum level of essential benefits and there are new caps on yearly out-of-pocket medical expenses. But enrollment through the online marketplaces that are a central feature of the law has been difficult for many due to serious technological problems with the federal website, and some may find out they don’t have the immediate coverage they thought they did.

Shanshala said he wouldn’t be surprised if problems arise next few weeks as patients start using their new plans given that there was such a tight timeline for enrolling, but he doesn’t anticipate major difficulties in sorting it all out even if patients show up without their new insurance cards. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Hampshire is the only company offering individual health plans through the new online market.

“We haven’t had any bills come through yet; it’s too new. But we think it’s going to walk and talk just like any other Anthem product, and have good working relationships with all our payers,” Shanshala said. “What we’ll look for is evidence that they’ve done their due diligence and that it’s somewhere in the process.”

“We’re going to see the patient regardless,” he said. “Our experience is that the payers have always treated us fairly so I don’t worry about that.”

He said success stories have included a mother and daughter who both have chronic conditions that require treatment every three months but had been denied coverage because of their pre-existing conditions and another patient who had been paying $350 a month for a catastrophic plan and is now enrolled in a more comprehensive plan that costs $50 a month.

“They’re very happy to have access to an insurance product,” he said. “Clearly that has taken some stress out of their lives.”

Paula Smith of Lamprey Health Care said the number of patients making appointments with application counselors steadily increased in November and December. Most have been people who previously couldn’t get coverage or whose employers don’t offer it.

“There are a number of people who are interested in the insurance but do not have any raging health conditions, so their philosophy is, ‘I’m going to enroll before March,'” she said. “They’re not really in a rush.”

Lamprey Health Center has clinics in Newmarket, Nashua and Raymond, none of which were seeing crowds on the first two days coverage kicked in for insurance plans purchased through the Affordable Care Act. But Wednesday was a holiday and a snowstorm Thursday likely kept things quiet, she said.

“I think there’s still a lot of people who don’t know about the plans; I think there are people who’ve heard all the negativity in the media and are reluctant. But once they get in, they say it’s not so bad,” she said. “For the most part, people have been very happy for the opportunity to have the assisters.”

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