Obamacare in New Mexico: Take two


WILL IT BE EASIER THIS TIME?: Officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange are counting on the www.HealthCare.gov website working smoothly this time.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Officials at the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange are making a number of changes as Year Two of Obamacare rolls out, but one big element remains: individual policies will still go through the same www.HealthCare.gov website that experienced a series of embarrassing mishaps when the Affordable Care Act rolled out last winter.

“I’m hoping the feds do a better job this year,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMHIX board. “They can’t go anywhere but up.”

Another NMHIX board member, Jason Sandel, is much more blunt. When asked what grade he would give the ACA’s debut, Sandel said, “An F.”

“We’re dependent upon them and every bit of involvement that I’ve had with the federal government has been a disaster,” Sandel told New Mexico Watchdog after the board wrapped up its recent monthly meeting. “So I’m apprehensive about what the future holds for this open enrollment.”

In little more a month — Nov. 15 to be exact — a 90-day open enrollment period begins for New Mexicans looking to obtain individual ACA health care policies.

While a host of questions surround the second year of the ACA, the largest is whether the HealthCare.gov site can smoothly sign up all the new enrollees the NMHIX board hopes will respond to an upcoming multi-million dollar marketing, advertising and public relations blitz across the state.

“I think it’s prudent for the board to get the most bang for the buck,” said NMHIX board chairman Dr. J.R. Damron. “The bucks we’re talking about (come from) taxes.”

NMHIX officials originally planned to ditch HealthCare.gov after the first year and funnel individuals to New Mexico’s own www.bewellnm.com website, which small businesses in the state use.

But worried that IT issues wouldn’t get resolved in time for the November re-enrollment period, board members voted 11-1 in July to stick with the federal site for one more year.

“We’ve got a year under our belt,” said Dr. Martin Hickey, director of the NMHIX marketing, public relations and outreach committee. “We’ve not only learned from New Mexico, but we’ve learned from other states.”

On the positive side, 165,000 previously uninsured New Mexicans signed up for Medicaid in the past year and 34,200 signed up for individual policies.

But last year’s goal was 83,000 individual policies. After the botched roll-out of healthcare.gov, NMHIX adjusted its goal to 40,000 but still fell short of expectations.

Even though New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country, the number of enrollees receiving subsidies to reduce their premiums was six points lower than the national average.

To make things worse, a statewide poll commissioned by the board showed that despite a $7 million marketing and advertising campaign to convince New Mexico enrollees to sign up, only 40 percent of respondents even knew what the state’s health care exchange did.

In response, the NMHIX board has put its marketing and advertising contract up for re-bid and hired a new CEO — Amy Dowd, who comes over from Idaho where she won favorable reviews for running the Your Health Idaho exchange.

“I’m looking very strategically how we’re going to spend our money,” Dowd told New Mexico Watchdog.

“We need to work hard to get the uninsured in New Mexico insured,” Damron said. “That is our key element. An emphasis will be on the Hispanic population.”

But staying tied to the HealthCare.gov site means that as the feds go, so goes New Mexico.

“They’re working out the bugs and the cumbersome parts to it so I’m feeling confident that it will work on Nov. 15,” Hickey said.

Sandel, though, admits he’s worried.

“I’m concerned that our success is being based on whether or not they’ll be able to perform,” he said.

Two weeks ago, the General Accounting Office reported “weaknesses remained in the security and privacy protections applied to HealthCare.gov and its supporting systems.”

What’s more, the load in New Mexico figures to be heavier this year. Earlier this week, 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 Obamacare.

NMHIX officials haven’t disclosed what numbers they hope to reach this time around, but Damron told New Mexico Watchdog the goal is to reduce the percentage of uninsured in New Mexico from 23 percent to less than 10 percent.

“We’re working on it,” Damron said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a two to five-year process.”

“It’s absolutely a critical year,” Sandel said.