NM Obamacare officials mum on signup goals


UP TO THE TASK? The federal government is promising states like New Mexico that the www.healthcare.gov website will run smoothly this time

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Last year, officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange predicted 83,000 people would sign up for individual policies during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare.

But the launch of the www.healthcare.gov website was nothing short of disastrous and NMHIX officials later slashed their goal to 40,000.

By the time open enrollment ended in April, 34,200 New Mexicans signed up.

This time around, NMHIX officials aren’t yet making any predictions.

“We don’t have a number at this time,” NMHIX chief executive officer Amy Dowd told New Mexico Watchdog the day before the second round of open enrollment started across the country. “It’s very early in the process to project.”

NMHIX officials may be taking a page out of the playbook of new U.S. Health and Human Services Department Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who last week announced targets 30 percent lower than predictions made by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The move led some to speculate the Obama administration wants to set a lower figure to avoid criticism if the CBO number isn’t met.

“There is still a lot of mystery,” Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Washington Post.

Dowd wouldn’t say why NMHIX hasn’t announced its signup goals, saying, “We’re optimistic that we’ll get new enrollments. We haven’t published specific figures.” Dowd did, however, indicate NMHIX may release targeted numbers later.

Saturday marked the start of a 90-day open enrollment period that’s scheduled to end Feb. 15. Small businesses in the state can enroll through the NMHIX website, www.bewellnm.com, but for the second year in a row, individuals who want to sign up for Obamacare coverage must go to the healthcare.gov site to obtain coverage.

“We are told by the feds that there have been a lot of improvements to the federal website and we are optimistic things are going to run a lot smoother this year,” Dowd said.

While potential customers have 90 days to sign up, enrollees must complete the process by Dec. 15 to have their policies take effect by the start of the new year.

That’s not much time and that one month stretch should provide some answers to whether the revamped healthcare.gov website is up to the challenge.

“This is hard,” Burwell said last week. “We will have things that won’t go right. We will have outages. We will have downtime. But the most important thing we can do about that is make sure we are prepared.”

New Mexico may see a surge of applicants because less than two months ago, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Mexico sent out notices to 30,000 customers saying their policies were being canceled because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements of the ACA.

NMHIX officials are counting on putting up better numbers by adopting a better marketing plan this time around.

Late last week, the exchange announced that the Albuquerque-based advertising group K2MD, along with three other vendors, won the bid to promote the exchange because of the firm’s “deep knowledge of the New Mexico population, the Hispanic community and Native American outreach.”

The total budget for the four vendors is $6.1 million and about $3 million in total advertising buys will be managed between now and March 31 of next year.

How big will the advertising blitz be?

“We haven’t finalized that yet,” Dowd said. “We’ll make that decision as we go, based on how successful we’re being and how many people we’re reaching.”

Two months ago, the NMIX board yanked its advertising and marketing contract from a firm based in Milwaukee after a statewide poll showed that, despite spending $7 million marketing in New Mexico, only 40 percent of respondents knew what the state’s health care exchange did.

“We’ve tailored our outreach efforts to engage consumers,” Dowd said. “We’re taking a grassroots approach.”