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Many in Vt. Await Insurance Cards



Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Norwich — As the New Year began, Elizabeth Howard was getting anxious about her doctor’s appointment coming up in two weeks.

Supposedly, the insurance that she purchased through Vermont Health Connect, the online insurance marketplace rolled out in October as part of Obamacare, went into effect as of Jan. 1. She had enrolled for a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont plan months ago, paid in November but had still not received an ID card.

“I was really quite anxious about it because I didn’t want to have someone saying, ‘You’re not covered,’ ” said the 59-year-old Norwich resident.

Fortunately, her card arrived in the mail Saturday. But her husband is still waiting for his, as are many other Vermonters who have signed up for insurance through the marketplace website. The message from the state and insurance carriers is simple: Don’t worry. You’re covered.

Most Vermonters have until today to mail their payments to the state for coverage that began Jan. 1, said Emily Yahr, a spokeswoman for Vermont Health Connect. As long as the payment is postmarked by the date included on the invoice, then that person should be covered. And if people have questions, then they should call.

“It’s going to take a few days to process,” Yahr said. “They can certainly just call the insurance carrier or they can give us a call.”

Blue Cross and MVP Health Care are the only two companies offering insurance through Vermont’s marketplace. On average, individuals should expect to wait several weeks between the time they send in payment and when they get a card in the mail, said spokespersons for Blue Cross and MVP.

Nearly 20,000 Vermonters had picked plans through Vermont Health Connect as of late December. Yahr was unsure of how many people had purchased plans but not received ID cards. Until they do, enrolled Vermonters should still be covered for medical care, but would have to reconcile bills with the insurance company or pay out-of-pocket and then be reimbursed.

That is a road that Howard was not eager to travel. She envisioned the hassle of fighting with an insurer over her doctor’s bill and figured she would rather postpone her appointment for a later date. Indeed, Howard was about to do just that when her insurance card arrived.

“It’s so expensive to go to the doctor,” she said. “I didn’t want to go and have to pay for it. I didn’t want to mess with it.”

So far, delays in receiving insurance cards haven’t been much of an issue for area hospitals. Dartmouth-Hitchcock spokesman Mike Barwell said he had not heard any reports of newly enrolled patients coming through the doors without insurance cards. One Vermont Health Connect patient had come to Mt. Ascutney Hospital, but that person had a card, said spokeswoman Amber Cutler.

“The process went smoothly,” Cutler said in an e-mail.

On Monday, a patient who walked into Gifford Medical Center said he bought coverage through Vermont Health Connect but still had not received his card, said Gifford spokeswoman Robin Palmer. Hospital staff usually can figure out whether someone is covered through the insurance company’s website. When that is not possible, the hospital bills the patient. Then, when the insurance card arrives, the patient enters the information on the bill and sends it off for the hospital and insurance company to handle.

“No one would ever be denied care or have to pay up-front,” Palmer said. “It just effects the billing process.”

Blue Cross has a contingency plan to handle patients who are still waiting for ID cards but need immediate care, said Blue Cross spokesman Kevin Goddard. Individuals previously insured on Blue Cross plans are still in the company’s system, and anyone newly insured through Vermont Health Connect may be added by phone, he said. The company will then reconcile everything after payment and enrollment information has been processed.

“Our total focus in this as we prioritize stuff is always to assure that folks don’t have access to care interrupted,” Goddard said.

The Vermont Health Connect website still has problems, Goddard said. Adding dependents, changing addresses and marital status still must be done manually, he said, as that information cannot be electronically transferred to insurance providers.

“From a behind the scenes point of view, it’s not as clean and efficient as it will be,” he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has expressed frustration with the website’s troubles and continues to keep tabs on efforts to fix it. He is scheduled to meet this morning with the House Health Care and Senate Health and Welfare committees to discuss Vermont Health Connect and health reform.

State Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, is vice chairwoman of the House Health Care committee. She and her colleagues have a busy week ahead as they dive into enrollment figures and discuss efforts to curb health care spending in Vermont.

Hanzas also wants to make sure that small business owners are taken care of. After the website’s problems became apparent, Shumlin told small businesses that they could keep their current health insurance plans until March 31. That extension alleviated traffic on the website while the state worked out technical glitches. However, Hanzas wants to make sure there are no log jams when small business owners start shopping for coverage soon.

“My main concern is the anxiety that is out there for business owners,” she said.

Individuals who have not enrolled for coverage still have time to do so. Open enrollment through Vermont Health Connect extends through March. People who want coverage to begin next month have until Jan. 15 to pick a plan and until Jan. 31 to send in payment, Yahr said. However, she did not recommend waiting that long.

“The sooner you pay, the sooner you will get your card,” she said.

Yahr said the state’s invoicing system is working, although neither Howard nor her husband, Harry Roberts, have received one in the mail. Both took the initiative to find out where to send payment and did so. Roberts sent his check last week and still is waiting for his insurance card. He said he will try to avoid the doctor until then.

Despite the headaches, Howard said their new policies will be worth the trouble. Both are self-employed. Howard was paying $1,000 per month under a different Blue Cross plan and was expecting that to rise to $1,300 per month this year. Now, she is paying $586.

Howard still has questions, such as when she’ll finally get an invoice and when her next payment is due. She and Roberts have been disappointed with the poor communication from the state and with the website troubles, which early on prevented many people from enrolling.

Bottom line, however, is that they now have more affordable insurance through Vermont Health Connect. And the benefits of having that insurance, she said, outweigh the inconveniences so far.

“I just felt like I was really on top of it because I wanted to get this new insurance,” Howard said.

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