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West Virginia health insurance marketplace

35k enrollees by Jan. 16; Highmark's average rate increase = 24%

  • By
  • contributor
  • January 24, 2016

Enrollment already at 105% of last year’s total

35,080 people had enrolled in private plans through West Virginia’s exchange as of January 16, including renewals and new enrollees. At that point, there were still two weeks left in open enrollment for 2016 coverage.

For comparison, 33,421 people enrolled in private plans through the West Virginia exchange during the 2015 open enrollment period. So the exchange has surpassed last year’s total, well in advance of the end of open enrollment.

And last year, CMS reported cumulative enrollments at the end of open enrollment, and didn’t subtract unpaid enrollments until later in the year. When in-force enrollments were tallied as of March 31, 2015, the total stood at 29,862. 35kThis year, the drop-off after open enrollment won’t be a sharp, since CMS is removing unpaid enrollments in real-time (there’s still some lag, because premiums don’t have to be paid until the enrollee receives an invoice).

Open enrollment will continue until January 31. Enrollments completed between January 16 and January 31 will have coverage effective March 1. After the end of January, enrollment will only be available to people who have a qualifying event (Native Americans can enroll year-round however, as can anyone eligible for Medicaid or CHIP).

New carrier joins WV exchange

In 2014 and 2015, West Virginia’s exchange had just one carrier – Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. West Virginia is the only state in the country that had just one participating exchange carrier in 2015, although Wyoming has just one in 2016.

But for 2016, CareSource is also offering plans in 10 of West Virginia’s 55 counties (Brooke, Cabell, Hancock, Kanawha, Lincoln, Marshall, Mason, Ohio, Putnam, and Wayne).

Kentucky Health Cooperative (a CO-OP created under the ACA) had planned to expand into the West Virginia exchange in 2015, but in early November 2014, the CO-OP announced that they were postponing their expansion into West Virginia by a year. Then in September 2015, The West Virginia Office of the Insurance Commissioner confirmed that the Kentucky CO-OP would not be offering plans in the West Virginia exchange for 2016.

Ultimately, it was a moot point, as Kentucky Health CO-OP announced in October 2015 that they would cease operations at the end of 2015. The CO-OP is no longer operational.

Although Highmark and CareSource are the only carriers offering plan in the exchange, several carriers offer plans outside the exchange in West Virginia, including Aetna, Celtic, Freedom Life, and Health Plan of the Upper Ohio Valley.

2016 rates

Highmark initially requested an average rate increase of 19.7 percent for individual plans in the West Virginia exchange, but the requested average rate increase was subsequently changed to 24 percent, and was approved by regulators at that level. Because West Virginia had just one carrier in 2015, it ended up among the three states where one hundred percent of the exchange plans requested double digit rate increases for 2016.

Highmark noted that they considered pulling out of the exchange at the end of 2015. But the carrier ultimately felt they have a “social mission” to provide coverage to residents in West Virginia (since there are no other options in most counties in the state). And the 24 percent rate increase that was approved by regulators made it possible for Highmark to continue to offer plans for 2016.

According to HHS data, the average benchmark (second lowest-cost Silver) plan premium in West Virginia is 18.5 percent more expensive in 2016 than it was in 2015. Subsidy amounts are tied to the cost of the benchmark plan in each area, so subsidies are higher in West Virginia in 2016, and will offset a significant portion of the premium hikes for subsidy-eligible enrollees (86 percent of enrollees qualified for subsidies in 2015; more will likely qualify in 2016, since premiums are higher).

For residents of the counties where CareSource if offering plans in 2016, there is some competition and choice. But in the other 45 counties, Highmark remains the only option. The good news for the vast majority of exchange enrollees is that subsidies increased for 2016, just as they did for 2015.

Additional enrollment assistance

When CMS announced navigator grant recipients in September 2015, they noted that West Virginia would have an additional 42 counties covered by local navigators during the 2016 open enrollment period (November 1 to January 31), dramatically improving access to in-person enrollment help.

CMS awarded nearly $607,000 in navigator grants to three West Virginia agencies: the Appalachian Area Agency on Aging, First Choice Services, Inc., and West Virginia University Research Corp.

ACA subsidies are safe

Because West Virginia has a federally-run exchange, the continued availability of subsidies depended on how the Supreme Court ruled in King v. Burwell.  Fortunately for the residents, insurers, and medical providers of West Virginia, the Court ruled that subsidies are legal in every state, so West Virginia’s reliance on no longer puts subsidies in jeopardy.

State-run exchange costly and unlikely

West Virginia is one of 23 states where leadership’s opposition to the ACA is strong enough that there was little chance of an agreement to create a state-run exchange, even when subsidies were in danger pending the outcome of King v. Burwell.

Prior to announcing in 2013 that West Virginia would be expanding Medicaid, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration had hired out cost analyses for both Medicaid expansion as well as setting up a state-run exchange, and ultimately decided that Medicaid expansion would provide more bang for their buck.

Now that subsidies are no longer in jeopardy in the federally-run exchange, there is little incentive for states to spend the money and resources necessary to create their own exchanges; West Virginia will likely continue to use the federally-run exchange going forward.

AG supported elimination of subsidies

Incidentally, West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey joined AGs from five other states in December 2014 in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell. Despite the fact that about 25,000 West Virginia residents would have lost subsidies if the plaintiffs had prevailed in the case, West Virginia’s Attorney General supported that outcome.

Governor Tomblin made it clear however that he did not support Morrisey’s amicus brief position, and has argued that when the state opted to use the federally-run exchange, they were under the impression that subsidies would be available either way.

2015 enrollment numbers

33,421 people enrolled in private plans through the West Virginia exchange during the 2015 open enrollment period (through February 22).  86 percent qualified for premium subsidies, and 49 percent are new to the exchange for 2015.  The other 51 percent are people who had plans in 2014 and either renewed them or selected a different exchange plan for this year.

HHS had projected 25,000 private plan enrollees in the West Virginia exchange by the end of open enrollment, and at ACAsignups, Charles Gaba set a higher projection: 31,000 enrollees by February 15.  Enrollment reached nearly 134 percent of the HHS projection, and even exceeded Gaba’s prediction (although the final count reflects a week-long extension that HHS added to allow people additional time to finish their enrollments).

But some enrollees didn’t pay their initial premiums, and others have cancelled their coverage mid-way through the year.  In addition, stepped up enforcement of immigration/financial documentation requirements in 2015, resulting in more real-time disenrollments and subsidy adjustments.  By the end of June, effectuated enrollment in private plans through the West Virginia exchange stood at 31,106 people. Nearly 86 percent are receiving premium subsidies that average $310 per month.

An additional 5,063 people enrolleed in Medicaid or CHIP through the exchange between November 15, 2014 and February 22, 2015. From the end of 2013 to October 2015, total enrollment in Medicaid/CHIP grew by 192,821 people in West Virginia – a 54 percent increase.

2015 rates and plans

West Virginia had just one carrier in its exchange in 2015 – Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield – although the carrier only offered 12 plans in 2014, and bumped that up to 14 in 2015.

In 2014, the lowest cost bronze plan in the WV exchange was an average of $280/month, higher than the national average of $249. For 2015, the average rate increase in the individual market in West Virginia was 6.7 percent, although there was variation from one plan and region to another, and the average included off-exchange plans as well as plans in the exchange. Because the Kentucky CO-OP filed rates alongside Highmark for 2015, experts believed (and Highmark has confirmed) that Highmark was forced to be more competitive with their rates for 2015. Highmark’s rates were not able to be adjusted heading into the 2015 open enrollment, even after the CO-OP pulled out of the WV market. So despite the fact that Highmark remained the only carrier in the state’s exchange in 2015, rates were as competitive as they would have been with a second participating carrier.

Because the exchange only had one participating carrier, there wasn’t as much to be gained as there was in other states by shopping around again during the 2015 open enrollment. The NY Times Upshot showed that people who had the benchmark plan (second lowest cost silver plan) in 2014 saw an average rate increase of 9 percent in most of West Virginia for 2015. Since the benchmark plan didn’t change to a new carrier, there was no option to switch to a cheaper plan, unless enrollees wanted to go with the lowest-cost silver plan or a bronze plan.

Across all metal levels in the exchange, a Commonwealth Fund analysis found an average rate increase of 10 percent in 2015 for a 40 year-old non-smoker in West Virginia.  Of course, most enrollees qualify for subsidies, and the subsidies rose to keep pace with the increase in price for the benchmark plan.

The ACA’s impact in West Virginia

Although West Virginia opted to let HHS run the exchange, the state chose to expand Medicaid under the ACA, and has been working diligently to enroll as many people as possible in expanded Medicaid. Their efforts have paid off: From 2013 to October 2015, West Virginia’s Medicaid/CHIP enrollment grew by 55 percent – the seventh-highest increase in the country (only Oregon, Kentucky, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington had higher percentage increases).

By October 2015, West Virginia had 547,365 residents (almost 30% of the state’s population) enrolled in Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. And as of September 2014, reports indicated that the state had already enrolled virtually all of the people who were eligible for expanded Medicaid. Medicaid enrollment continues year-round, so any remaining eligible residents can enroll at any time.

According to US census data, about 14 percent of the West Virginia population was uninsured in 2013. By 2014, that number had fallen to 8.6 percent. A Wallet Hub survey pegged the state’s uninsured rate at just 6.6 percent in July 2014, and Gallup data put the uninsured rate at 8.3 percent during the first half of 2015, starting from a high of 17.6 percent in 2013. Another study in 2015 confirmed similar data, pegging West Virginia’s uninsured rate at 6.59 percent.

Regardless of what study we consider, the reduction in the state’s uninsured rate is due almost entirely to the ACA.

In a 2014 study conducted by Wallet Hub, West Virginia was ranked second in the nation in terms of how much the states and their residents benefit from Obamacare. If all provisions of the law were fully implemented in every state (including Medicaid expansion, which West Virginia has already implemented), West Virginia would rise to the top of the list as the state the benefits the most from the ACA.

Anti-ACA legislation didn’t advance

Despite how much the ACA has helped West Virginia, lawmakers introduced a pair of anti-ACA bills shortly after the 2015 legislative session convened.  HB 2216 would have given only the legislature the authority to create a state-based health insurance exchange – the Governor would not be able to create an exchange without legislative approval if HB 2216 had passed. The bill was approved by the House Health and Human Resources Committee in a 14 – 9 vote on January 27, but it didn’t advance after that.

And HB 2509 went a step further – it would have invalidated the ACA in West Virginia. This bill was also reviewed by the House Health and Human Resources Committee, but did not advance to the House floor.

How many people enrolled in 2014?

In addition to Medicaid and CHIP enrollments, 25,856 people had completed their private plan Obamacare enrollments through the West Virginia exchange by early July 2014, which represented an increase of about 6,000 people since the end of the 2014 open enrollment period (qualifying events trigger special enrollment periods for private plans.)

Another 6,171 people had enrolled directly (outside the exchange) through Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield – the only carrier offering 2014 plans in the WV exchange – between October 1, 2013 and April 15, 2014. Off-exchange plans are ACA-compliant.

Prior to open enrollment, there were an estimated 99,000 West Virginians eligible for private Obamacare plans, so the combined total of on and off-exchange enrollments in the first year represented nearly a third of those individuals. Perry Bryant, Executive Director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, called the first year’s enrollment numbers “not as robust as we would have liked” but noted that was much more functional by its second year.

Why has West Virginia been so successful?

West Virginia expanded Medicaid, and is using auto-enrollment directly through the state’s Medicaid program, in addition to Medicaid enrollment through the exchange. The state has been working to contact residents who receive SNAP and WIC benefits, as well as households where some members were already receiving Medicaid benefits. By letting these individuals know about the expanded Medicaid program, the outreach program has been wildly successful.

Actuaries had predicted that 63,000 people would enroll in WV’s expanded Medicaid program in 2014, but by September 2014, the number of new Medicaid enrollments in WV had grown to between 132,00 and 145,000 people, out of an estimated total of between 143,000 and 150,000 eligible people.

West Virginians for Affordable Health Care is a group that has been instrumental in pressing for healthcare reform in West Virginia for nearly a decade. They have been involved in education and outreach about the ACA, and are pushing for better management of chronic illnesses, which account for three quarters of the state’s health care spending.  Their efforts have helped to bolster WV’s exchange enrollment numbers, for both Medicaid and private plans.

In December 2014, West Virginia University’s School of Public Health received a $2 million grant that will be used to pilot innovative approaches to improving public health and controlling healthcare costs. The initiative was sponsored by CMS, and initially focused on people using Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  But WVU and its public health partners envision that eventually “… all West Virginians will benefit from these initiatives…”

West Virginia exchange history

After first developing plans to operate a state-run health insurance exchange, West Virginia submitted a blueprint for a partnership exchange to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The blueprint for the West Virginia Health Insurance Marketplace was approved in March 2013.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration cited cost, particularly the expense associated with information technology systems, as a key factor in ultimately deciding against a fully-state-run exchange. Administration officials also said the partnership gives the state some control over the exchange.

Under the partnership, West Virginia is responsible for regulating companies that sell health insurance policies on the exchange.

The state also oversees the In-Person Assister (IPA) program. Assisters are under contract with the state and provide individuals impartial help with the enrollment process. In November 2014, the state announced that it would be hiring an additional 100 people to help residents enroll in the exchange and the state’s expanded Medicaid program.

Grandmothered plans

West Virginia initially did not allow non-grandfathered pre-2014 policies in the individual market to renew again in 2014; they had to be replaced with ACA-compliant coverage as of their renewal date in 2014.

But in April 2014, the state reversed course, agreeing to allow grandmothered (transitional) plans to be renewed as late as 2016.

The state also filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration because the federal government deferred to the states on the decision about whether or not to renew grandmothered plans.

Contact the exchange

West Virginia residents enroll through the federally facilitated exchange; 2016 enrollment runs November 1, 2015 through January 31, 2016.

West Virginia health insurance exchange links

West Virginia Health Reform Resources

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