Consumers: Simplicity Key in Health Law

Concord — New Hampshire consumers yesterday told state and federal officials who will be setting up and managing new health insurance marketplaces required under the federal health overhaul law that first and foremost the new system should be understandable.

About two dozen people spoke at a forum organized by New Hampshire Voices for Health and AARP. Representatives from the state insurance and health departments were in the audience, and a regional representative from the federal Department of Health and Human Services listened in by phone.

Many of those who testified said they look forward to having more health insurance options and urged the state to focus on creating a user-friendly system, built on resources already in place and that could steer people to the right plans.

The federal law requires states to create marketplaces that will offer individuals and their families a choice of private health plans resembling what major companies offer their workers. The New Hampshire Legislature passed a law last session prohibiting a state-run marketplace, and Gov. Maggie Hassan decided last month to pursue a partnership with the federal government in offering state residents their choices.

At the forum, Lisa Morris, director of the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health, said the state’s previous experience with Medicare enrollment illustrates the need for community-based education and one-on-one assistance. Many senior citizens, including those who consider themselves computer savvy, have had trouble using the Medicare online enrollment system, she said.

“I believe the health exchange will present many of the same challenges as the Medicare exchange, probably much more,” she said. “There are many people who have difficulty understanding the complexity of the health care system, not to mention navigating web-based information and enrollment.”

But several insurance industry executives said they were concerned that consumers would end up being advised by those without the appropriate skills and training. Thomas Welden, president of the New Hampshire Association of Health Underwriters, said it should be insurers, not the so-called “navigators,” who explain the various products to consumers.

And Ray White, a former state senator who runs an insurance company, said he doesn’t like the prospect of competing with navigators who will be collecting federal funding regardless of whether consumers end up enrolled in health plans.

“Don’t disrupt the current system. Keep a light touch,” he said.

Laura Miller, who owns a Concord toy store, disagreed. She said insurance agents were of no help to her because, due to a preexisting condition, her only insurance option has been the state’s high risk pool.

“Don’t let insurance brokers have the only access to helping people through the system. They have inherent bias,” said Miller, who said she wants to be among the first residents to find a plan through the new marketplace.

Laurette Edelmann, assistant director of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, said she once held an insurance license in a past job but still finds it a challenge to decipher the options as she oversees benefits for the center’s nine staff members. She’s also the wife of a self-employed contractor who doesn’t have insurance through his job and the mother of a 24-year-old who soon will age-out of the option to remain on her plan.

“Make sure the marketplace has assistance available for consumers of all sophistication levels so they can make the best choice for themselves,” she said.