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Insurance Marketplace Glitches Frustrate Twin State Businesses

  • At West Lebanon Feed and Supply on Oct. 31, 2013 in West Lebanon, N.H.,  employee Melissa Gumm helps customer Linda Galvan of East Thetford,Vt., pick some food out for her cats. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck

    At West Lebanon Feed and Supply on Oct. 31, 2013 in West Lebanon, N.H., employee Melissa Gumm helps customer Linda Galvan of East Thetford,Vt., pick some food out for her cats. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed and Supply, at his store in West Lebanon on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck

    Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed and Supply, at his store in West Lebanon on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Franzoni of CATV works in his office in White River Junction, Vt. on Nov. 1, 2013.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Bob Franzoni of CATV works in his office in White River Junction, Vt. on Nov. 1, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • At West Lebanon Feed and Supply on Oct. 31, 2013 in West Lebanon, N.H.,  employee Melissa Gumm helps customer Linda Galvan of East Thetford,Vt., pick some food out for her cats. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck
  • Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed and Supply, at his store in West Lebanon on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck
  • Bob Franzoni of CATV works in his office in White River Junction, Vt. on Nov. 1, 2013.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Norwich — For 40 years, Dan & Whit’s General Store has offered health insurance to its employees.

Owner George Fraser intends to make sure his full-time workers are still covered next year, when the current policy expires and the new coverage through Vermont’s insurance marketplace begins. So far, he hasn’t been happy with how the online enrollment has gone.

“My concern, right now, is that some of our employees won’t have insurance come Jan. 1,” Fraser said last week.

His concerns are shared by many small businesses in Vermont, which is requiring those who want to offer health insurance to buy it through VermontHealthConnect.gov, the state’s marketplace website. But the frustrations are felt everywhere, including New Hampshire, where small companies have been slow to embrace the marketplaces amid similar problems.

Close to 800 small businesses in Vermont have set up online accounts, but none have selected plans yet, said Vermont Health Connect spokeswoman Emily Yahr. Businesses said they haven’t been able to complete the process because of problems with the website.

And in New Hampshire, where businesses have the option of buying through the federal marketplace website, HealthCare.gov, or getting insurance “off-market,” many are choosing the latter.

“I’m not sure how many (businesses) we can expect to buy through the exchange,” said Adrienne Rupp, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, the state’s chamber of commerce.

Starting next year, individuals will be required to have health coverage or face a tax penalty under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But long before the individual mandate, health insurance has been an important benefit that employers have used to attract and retain workers, which is why their frustrations with the rollout of the marketplaces since Oct. 1 have been particularly acute.

Last Thursday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said employers would be allowed to extend their current policies to cover workers through March. He added that he shared people’s frustrations and said that while he was “confident that Vermont Health Connect will be a success and we will get past this temporary transition, I will not let uncertainty on this front drag on.”

The announcement was applauded by the business community, though Fraser curbed his enthusiasm before he heard more details.

“If the system fails and they give us the authority to extend it, we will do so,” Fraser said Friday.

The process for employers that choose to offer coverage is this: First the employer goes online and sets up an account. At this point, the employer fills out a roster of employees who are eligible for insurance, picks plans and specifies how much the employer will contribute. Then, the website generates IDs and four-digit codes for employees, who then go into the system themselves and pick the plans they want. The last step is when the employer sends payment to the state to finalize coverage.

So far, nobody in Vermont seems to have passed the point where the employees sign up. A week and a half ago, Fraser sent his son, Dan, across the street to the store’s insurance broker to try to enroll. What was supposed to be a 20-minute session turned into an hour, and involved calls to the state’s help center.

Even with the extra assistance, Dan Fraser and his broker were never able to complete the process.

“They should have been able to do this on Oct. 1,” Dan Fraser said. “Here we are, four weeks later, and I haven’t been able to enroll.”

The state has offered paper applications as a backup and also has been helping to get people signed up over the telephone.

But Vermont has a goal to sign up 100,000 people for insurance coverage through the marketplace, and 170,000 more for Medicaid.

In order to meet the state’s goals, the Vermont Health Connect website has to work, said Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

“This was supposed to be an online purchasing system,” Bishop said. “The way we were going to get everybody signed up in the system is through online access.”

The glitches aren’t the only reasons why employers are cool to the marketplace. Many don’t like the plans. Fraser said the marketplace plan comparable to his current policy puts more out-of-pocket burden on his employees. When Dan & Whit’s makes the switch, the 71-year-old Fraser said he will enroll in Medicare.

Similarly, New Hampshire business owners said they haven’t been impressed by what they’ve seen.

Curt Jacques, who owns West Lebanon Feed & Supply, has employees from both states and has studied both marketplaces. His current insurance plan was a better deal than anything he saw online.

The marketplace plans weren’t programs that “had a lot of teeth and would offer something better for the employees,” he said. Although his insurance rates through Anthem went up this year, his existing policy was still the best option.

“(Rates) went up, but they didn’t go up as much as they have been,” he said.

Insurance rates at Sequoya Technologies Group actually went down 8 percent this year, said Debra Strickland, co-owner of the Peterborough, N.H., technology company. That rate reduction for the policy offered through Anthem came after years of double-digit increases, Strickland said. But the lower cost is not the only reason her company is staying with its current coverage.

The policies that Anthem is offering on New Hampshire’s marketplace have a restricted network of providers that include just 16 of the state’s 26 hospitals.

This allowed Anthem to negotiate lower prices by offering hospitals a larger volume of patients. But Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough was among the 10 excluded, and Strickland said it was an important consideration in choosing coverage.

“I think we’re going to go with our traditional plan because of the wider network,” she said.

Vermont’s small employers don’t have an “off-market” option. They have to buy through Vermont Health Connect. Still, not everybody is panicking about the problems.

Bob Franzoni, executive director at CATV8, the public access televisions station in White River Junction, has been researching options for the station’s four employees. He has had no problems getting on the Vermont Health Connect website, but then hasn’t yet tried to enroll for coverage.

He’s meeting with the station board later this month to decide what it will offer.

Until then, Franzoni said he’s going to keep gathering information and let the government sweat over the glitches.

“I’m not really concerned about anything,” he said. “If the government is requiring this, they’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.