91% in RI pay first premiums for Obamacare plans

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The vast majority of individuals who signed up for private insurance plans through Rhode Island’s new Obamacare marketplace finished the process by paying their first premiums, the agency’s leader confirmed Friday.

Christine Ferguson, executive director of HealthSource RI, said 91% of the 27,968 individuals who signed up for private plans during the open enrollment period from Oct. 1 to March 31 paid their first premiums by the April 23 deadline. Analysts have pointed to that percentage as a key test of whether the enrollment figures were as strong as they looked.

“My takeaway of that 91% is that we have work to do to keep them, but that’s a high conversion rate, and it’s a testament to the work that the staff’s done to really work with people,” Ferguson told WPRI.com.

“I think it’s a reflection of the work that’s been done in the marketplace, the care that we took in the kinds of plans we offered and the range, and I think it is a reflection of the system working reasonably well,” she said. “I think for us the real issue – and I think the thing that people have not paid enough attention to nationally – is retention.”

A total of 25,879 individuals had signed up for a private plan through HealthSource RI and paid their first premiums as of April 30, the agency said. In addition, more than 70,000 people have now used the marketplace to sign up for Medicaid, the government insurance plan for low-income Americans, far more than were expected to do so.

Ferguson guessed that of the roughly 2,000 people who signed up for a private plan through HealthSource RI but failed to pay their first premiums, some may have discovered they were eligible for insurance at work, while others likely decided the plan wasn’t affordable. The issue of cost is a key concern as HealthSource RI works with insurers for 2015, she said.

“I think we may have a couple of plans that are a little bit lower and will have a broader range” become available this fall, Ferguson said, adding: “Overall the range that we’re looking at, in terms of benefit design and pricing, it looks we’re going to have some good options.”

Ferguson also confirmed that HealthSource RI is “in very serious discussions” with executives at UnitedHealth Group Inc. to have United start selling plans for individuals on the Rhode Island marketplace this fall. “I will say that there’s a very good chance that United will,” she said.

Executives at United, the nation’s largest health insurer, have signaled in recent weeks that they plan to start selling Obamacare plans in more states during the next open enrollment period this fall. While United is already selling plans to small businesses through HealthSource RI, the marketplace currently has only Blue Cross & Blue Shield and Neighborhood Health Plan offering individual plans.

However, Ferguson also said it no longer looks likely that Tufts Health Plan will start selling plans through HealthSource RI this year despite the insurer’s previous statements that it intended to do so. She attributed that to the botched rollout of the Obamacare marketplace in Massachusetts, which is Tufts’ home market.

As for Massachusetts’ troubles, Ferguson said she’s “trying to figure out if there’s something we can do potentially jointly,” though she cautioned that “right now we’re just talking.”

State lawmakers are currently debating whether HealthSource RI – which still doesn’t have a designated funding source for when federal dollars run out next year – should get an annual budget of roughly $20 million, or whether they should consider handing the marketplace back to the federal government to run.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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