LIHUE — The Hawaii Health Connector — Hawaii’s tool to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act — is up and running as of Tuesday.
That is, depending on who says so.
“They did not meet their deadline, so they’re not ready, essentially,” said Kayla Rosenfeld, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, about the new HHC.
HHC Chief Marketing Officer Rick Budar, however, said hundreds of people have already started the application process. He said consumers will be able to apply for coverage, but insurers are still testing and reviewing rates in part to make sure they’re shown correctly within the system.
“The site is up and we are taking applications,” he said. “We’ve been getting lots of calls and lots of web chats.”
Tuesday wasn’t a deadline; rather it was the “start date” of the education process, according to Budar.
“The actual goal line is Jan. 1,” he said. “Our whole focus is getting that person that is uninsured to the doctor on Jan. 1, and that has been our companywide focus from the start.”
But where are the insurance plans from different providers?
The launching date came without consumers being able to compare rates — at least yet.
“Unfortunately, the plans are not on the website; that has not yet been released,” said an employee at Hoola Lahui Hawaii, HHC’s Marketplace Assister on Kauai.
She wouldn’t elaborate further and said she wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of HHC.
Rosenfeld said HHC is shooting for Friday to have the plans up and running on their website.
Budar, however, was more conservative in his answer. He said the plans should be up shortly, possibly within this month. Once the plans are available, HHC will send out notifications to all who have applied for health insurance, he said.
Budar also downplayed the need to have the insurance plans available now on HHC’s website.
“This month, what the public wanted was education,” he said. “They wanted to get their questions answered, they wanted to learn more, to learn about the ACA, to learn about what it means to them, who it affects.”
HHC Executive Director Coral Andrews announced last year HHC would launch an online insurance marketplace for individuals and small businesses that was to start Tuesday. Smaller organizations would have more leverage to negotiate — and bring down — prices, she said.
Though purchases can only be made Jan. 1, business owners were supposed be able to start browsing insurance plans on HHC’s website as of Tuesday.
The confusion prompted the Governor’s Office to weigh in.
“This is a work in progress and the state is monitoring the situation at the Hawaii Health Connector,” Gov. Neil Abercrombie said in press release Tuesday. “I believe … the connector will roll out improvements to its system in phases and provide the public with key information.”
A new Medicaid eligibility and enrollment system, available at www.mybenefits.hawaii.gov, is a vital component of the health insurance exchange, overseen by DHS, according to the release.
The Med-QUEST Division is now able to return Medicaid eligibility the day after receiving an application, the release states. Later this year, system upgrades will allow for same-day determinations.
Abercrombie praised the DHS Med-QUEST staff for the “monumental task” accomplished in the last eight months.
“They worked tirelessly to build, test and launch the new online Medicaid eligibility system, and are ready for business,” he said.
At this point, Budar said “we’ll have to wait and see” what will happen to health insurance prices in general.
“We had heard reports that there was going to be a rate-shock and rates were going to skyrocket,” he said.
“Then the insurance division came out with an article about the rates and actually, the rates did not soar.”
Hawaii is in a unique position compared to many states, because of the state’s Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974, which is a prepaid employment mandate for health insurance coverage.
“We really won’t see too much effect in the state of Hawaii,” said Budar, adding the majority of Hawaii residents have coverage. “We really only have about 100,000 uninsured (people).”
The state of Hawaii has 1.4 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The HHC, Budar said, is just another option for those who were not able to get insurance coverage.
Over the next few months, he said, more functions will be added to HHC’s website.
The process for health insurance has three phases. The first one is the application, which is ongoing right now.
The next step includes evaluation of available plans. The third phase, starting in January, is when enrollment — which involves payment — kicks in.
HHC was established as a nonprofit organization in 2011 by the state Legislature through Act 205. It is overseen by the Legislature and governed by state and federal laws and regulations.
Though HHC is a private nonprofit, it is recognized as a quasi-governmental organization by federal authorities.
Visit www.hawaiihealthconnector.com for more information.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or firstname.lastname@example.org