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Montana health insurance exchange

Average MT rate hike only 1.6 percent; benchmark plans priced lower than 2014

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  • December 9, 2014

Open enrollment began on November 15, and continues for three months, ending on February 15.  but if you want your new coverage to be effective January 1, you need to complete your enrollment by December 15.

In the first two weeks of open enrollment, 765,135 people enrolled in health plans across the 37 states that are using (including Montana).  HHS has not yet provided a state-by-state breakdown of that number – last year they did that on a monthly basis during open enrollment – but during the first open enrollment period, Montana enrollments accounted for well under 1 percent of the total sign-ups.  This is expected given the state’s low population.

New carrier in Montana exchange

Assurant joined the exchange in Montana for 2015, so residents are now able to select from four carriers.  The three carriers that offered plans in 2014 are all continuing to participate in 2015: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, PacificSource and the Montana Health Co-op.

The Montana Health Co-op was created under the co-op provisions of the ACA, and was one of the first seven co-ops to receive federal funding in early 2012.  By mid-June, the Co-op had enrolled more than 12,000 members in Montana, and has expanded into Idaho for 2015.

And 2015 rate increase “historically low”

Across all carriers, the lowest cost bronze plan in the Montana exchange averages $251/month in 2014, which is very close to the national average of $249.

And things look good for 2015:  In late August, the state announced that rates for 2015 would only be increasing an average of 1.6 percent for individuals (when combined with small group premiums, the average increase is even smaller, at 1.35 percent).  Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen described the upcoming rate hike as “historically low”

In all rating areas in Montana, the benchmark plan (second-lowest-cost silver plan) in less expensive for 2015 than it was in 2014.  But in order to get the lower rates, consumers need to shop around in the exchange during open enrollment.  People who had the benchmark plan in 2014 and let it automatically renew will see higher premiums state-wide for 2015.  And because the benchmark plans are less expensive in 2015, subsidies will be lower too, making it especially important to shop around during open enrollment.  Even though auto-renewal is available for most Montana enrollees, it’s not in your best interest.

Keep in mind that for a plan change to be effective January 1, you need to select your new plan by December 15.

Navigator outreach

Three organizations in Montana received a total of $609,000 in September to fund their navigator and enrollment assistance efforts for 2015.  Planned Parenthood, the Montana Health Network, and the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council are all serving as navigator organizations in the state.

Navigators in Montana are focusing on outreach targeted at uninsured populations within the state, particularly Native Americans.  Native Americans are exempt from the ACA’s individual mandate, and they have access to Indian Health Service care.  But Native American leaders caution that relying solely on IHS can mean foregoing some care, and there are excellent plans available through the ACA that provide enhanced benefits for Native Americans.

There’s also monthly enrollment year-round for Native Americans; the normal open enrollment deadline does not apply.  But outreach specialists are hoping that the publicity surrounding open enrollment will help them to encourage more Native Americans in Montana to enroll this winter.

Enrollment assisters throughout the state are reporting that is working far better than it was last year, and navigators throughout the country are reporting that enrollment is smoother and easier in virtually every state.

2014 enrollment numbers

As of April 19, private plan Obamacare enrollments had been completed for 36,584 Montana residents.  Another 4,638 people had qualified for the existing Medicaid program in Montana (Montana has not yet expanded Medicaid under the ACA).  

In addition to the people who purchased plans through the exchange, nearly 35,000 people enrolled in Obamacare-compliant plans outside the exchange by mid-April.  One of the provisions of the ACA requires that carriers use a single risk pool for all of their individual plans in a state, so each carrier’s off-exchange enrollments will be merged with its on-exchange enrollments for risk purposes – meaning that the additional off-exchange enrollments will be helpful in stabilizing rates.

By mid-July, the number of uninsured residents in Montana was about 30,000 lower than it had been in 2013 – more than a 15% drop in the uninsured rate in the state.  This was achieved with both on and off-exchange enrollments of previously uninsured folks, as well as the “woodwork” effect that has increased Medicaid enrollment even in states like Montana that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

No Medicaid expansion yet

Montana also opted out of expanding Medicaid.  Unfortunately, it was an accidental “no” vote that doomed the expansion effort, but there’s no way to undo such a vote after it happens.

The governor’s office is supportive of some aspects of Medicaid expansion, but no steps are likely to be taken towards expansion until at least 2015.

The Healthy Montana Initiative gathered more than 25,000 signatures this spring in an effort to get Medicaid expansion on the November ballot in Montana, but ultimately failed to reach their goal and the issue will not be on the 2014 ballot.  Supporters have vowed to redouble their efforts to secure health insurance for the 40,000 Montana residents who are currently in the coverage gap – unable to qualify for Medicaid, and also ineligible for subsidies to purchase private health insurance in the exchange.

The issue will almost certainly be addressed again in the 2015 legislative session, and appears to have broad public support in the state.

Exchange history in Montana

Montana’s legislature not only failed to authorize a state-run exchange, it also passed a bill in 2011 to prohibit the creation of an insurance exchange in Montana.

While Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed that bill, neither he nor Monica Lindeen, the state auditor and insurance commissioner, were able to generate legislative or public support for an exchange.

Consequently, the federal government is operating the exchange in Montana at  Montana is also one of nineteen states that has passed laws making it more difficult for people to serve as navigators for the exchange.

Under the federal model, most aspects of the exchange are managed by the federal government. However, states can retain control of “plan management” functions, and Montana opted to do so. Lindeen’s office released final exchange rates for the first round of open enrollment in mid-August 2013, nothing that the premiums are similar to what they would have been without the ACA.  Her office regulates plans that operate on the exchange, as it does for plans sold outside the exchange.

HHS is also running the SHOP exchange in Montana, providing health insurance for small businesses.  Montana is one of 18 states where the employee-choice feature of the SHOP exchange will be delayed until 2016 – meaning that instead of allowing employees to select from among a variety of options, there will be only one plan for each group in 2015.

Three organizations in Montana received federal grants in 2013 to serve as navigators and assist residents with the enrollment process during the first open enrollment period:  Planned ParenthoodMontana Primary Care Association, and the Montana Health Network.

Grandmothered plans

On November 25, Lindeen announced that Montana would allow health insurance carriers to extend 2013 policies that had been scheduled to terminate at the end of the year, but it was left up to each carrier to decide how to proceed.  Insureds with a policy that was eligible for renewal into 2014 also had the option of switching to an exchange plan.

Montana is not allowing those plans to continue to renew into 2015 however.  People with non-grandfathered pre-2014 plans needed to replace them with ACA-compliant plans at their renewal date in 2014, or during the current open enrollment that ends on February 15.  In order to get new coverage effective January 1, you must make your new plan selection by December 15.

Montana health insurance exchange links

State Exchange Profile: Montana
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation overview of Montana’s progress toward creating a state health insurance exchange.

Montana Consumer Assistance Program, Office of the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance
Serves as the state government watchdog for citizens of Montana in the insurance industry

Health Insurance Exchange Page from Montana Commission of Securities and Insurance
Details about how the exchange works, along with legislative history in Montana regarding the exchange creation process.