Idaho exchange: Enrollees blossom to 20,000

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Enrollment in Idaho’s insurance exchange has blossomed after the federal government in December fixed the website that residents use to sign up for health insurance coverage, with roughly 20,000 people buying individual and family coverage in time for it to begin Jan. 1.

That’s up from 1,730 people who purchased coverage available via Your Health Idaho through Nov. 30.

The new total was announced Friday by Your Health Idaho spokeswoman Jody Olson. Insurance exchanges were envisioned by President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul as online marketplaces for individuals and small businesses to compare and shop for coverage — and receive subsidies based on their income.

“We do not have any official numbers,” Olson told Your Health Idaho board members at a meeting in Boise, calling the latest tally “anecdotal.” She said she hopes to have concrete numbers from the federal government in a few days.

According to initial estimates by the federal government, Idaho is aiming to have at least 40,000 people enrolled in exchange coverage during 2014.

In Idaho, however, it remains unclear how many of the new enrollees came from the ranks of the uninsured, a key target group of Obama’s law. Some 260,000 people in Idaho were uninsured in 2013.

Rudey Ballard, an insurance agent in eastern Idaho’s Rexburg, said he’s sold hundreds of policies offered via Your Health Idaho, but few went to the previously uninsured.

“Almost all of them have been insured before,” Ballard told The Associated Press in late December. “Those people that were uninsured, when I talk to them at my little Wal-Mart booth, they had no idea. They said, ‘What do you mean, I have to have insurance?’ ”

Beginning March 1, virtually all Americans must have insurance or face an annual penalty. Individual fines start at a minimum $95 in 2014 and rise annually to a $695 minimum by 2016. For uninsured kids in 2014, the fine is $47.50 each.

The Idaho exchange’s $3.5 million advertising campaign got off to a delayed start in October when the website the state is using for enrollment experienced massive problems.

Not wanting to “advertise frustration,” the exchange board first delayed its marketing, then limited it to radio, Internet and newspapers. Television advertising won’t begin until later this month.

Exchange officials have acknowledged gaps in information, especially among Idaho’s previously uninsured, and they hope the next round of advertising helps remedy that.

“We want general population awareness, but we do want to do more of an action-oriented marketing plan, to target those who are uninsured or underinsured,” Olson told exchange board members.

Another group Idaho’s exchange is still working to reach: The state’s American Indian tribes, the Shoshone-Paiute, Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai groups.

So far, the exchange has been in talks with the tribes, but they are the only groups with whom Your Health Idaho leaders have yet to establish formal agreements to provide trained employees paid to answer questions about the new health care insurance requirements, then direct potential customers either to private brokers or the federal site to enroll.

On Friday, the board voted unanimously to begin using $200,000 to set up those employees with the tribes.

Federal law requires Idaho’s exchange to engage tribes or risk losing its state-run exchange, said Alberto Gonzalez, Your Health Idaho’s operations manager.

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