Despite President Barack Obama’s address last week, a Covered California board decision Thursday is bad news for consumers who want to keep their insurance coverage for another year.
On Thursday, the five-member Covered California board decided not to release the state’s major insurers from contractual terms that require them by Dec. 31 to cancel individual policies that don’t comply with the new federal standards. In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, that means the insurers offering coverage on the exchange – Anthem Blue Cross, Kaiser Permanente, HealthNet and Blue Cross of California – are expected to proceed with cancellations that have riled many consumers.
An outcry from individual policyholders across the nation had pressured Obama to make good on his promise to let people keep their current health coverage. Carrying out the president’s directive in California would require a change to contracts with the 11 insurers that agreed to offer plans through Covered California, the federally funded exchange set up to provide affordable coverage to the uninsured.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat and staunch supporter of the federal law, had urged the appointed board to release the insurers from the contract provisions. He said he was disappointed with Thursday’s unanimous board decision, “which denies individuals and families the opportunity to keep their existing health insurance as President Obama promised.”
Jones said that “allowing policy holders to keep their health coverage for the duration of 2014 (would) not undermine the implementation of the ACA, but rather give consumers more time to figure out what makes sense for their families.”
Peter Lee, executive director for Covered California, noted the president had said states should make their own decisions on extending noncompliant health plans for another year. Covered California staff said at Thursday’s meeting in Sacramento that policyholders could have seen midyear premium increases in 2014 because of provisions allowing insurers to jack up rates after giving 60-day notice.
A spokesman for Kaiser Permanente said the insurer would comply with the Covered California board decision.
More than 1 million California consumers are facing cancellation of health coverage purchased on the individual market. Covered California estimated that a third are eligible for subsidized coverage through the exchange; others, like Dave Anderson of Hughson, are feeling sticker shock when they research options.
“To match the coverage, it will cost 120 percent more than what I was paying a year ago,” said Anderson, a retired Stockton police officer who lost retirement health benefits when that city declared bankruptcy. He’s not eligible for a subsidy.
“Even though I have good insurance, I’m being told ‘it does not meet the criteria that we as government officials want you to have,’” Anderson said.
Anderson said Anthem Blue Cross recently offered a plan to replace his current coverage, which would cost $968 a month, compared with the previous premium of $560 a month.
In a retreat, Obama announced last week that states could extend millions of canceled insurance policies for another year amid uproar over his broken pledge that those who liked their plans would be able to keep them.
Several states, including Washington, Minnesota and Vermont, have rebuffed calls to alter their courses. About 600,000 Californians with canceled plans could expect to pay more for coverage.
In response to Covered California’s decision, the Republican minority in the Legislature said they would introduce legislation to allow consumers to keep their coverage for another year.
“It’s unacceptable that more Americans are losing their health care than are signing up for it through the exchanges,” said Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Tulare. “Democrats promised cheaper coverage for all Americans, but that’s not what’s happening.”
Covered California released enrollment numbers Thursday, showing that nearly 80,000 people have enrolled in health plans through the exchange since Oct. 1.
The exchange, which is now calling the shots in the insurance marketplace in California, released a number of measures to assist affected consumers:
• People will have until Dec. 23 to enroll new coverage that takes effect Jan. 1 and have until Jan. 5 to make the first premium payments.
• A telephone hotline to help consumers resolve enrollment questions. Starting Monday, the number is (855) 857-0445.
• Mailers from Covered California and the person’s current insurance provider laying out options for coverage.
The exchange released the first enrollment numbers broken down by geographic area, age and other demographic information. As of Oct. 31, a total of 1,343 people had signed up for health plans in the region including Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Mariposa and Tulare counties.
More than half of the 30,830 California residents who enrolled last month were age 45 and older, while 23 percent were in the 18-to-34 age group.
About 85 percent of people signing up were English speakers, a clear sign that outreach campaigns need to make headway with uninsured people who primarily speak Spanish or other languages. Spanish speakers represented just 3 percent of people who enrolled statewide.
Despite the shaky start to the health care overhaul, Janet Cataline of Modesto said it’s been a godsend for her after the company she worked for eliminated her job in May.
Her severance package from a Turlock firm where she worked for 26 years runs through the end of this month, meaning she faced monthly COBRA payments of $1,000 starting next month to keep her insurance.
Cataline and her husband were able to get a subsidized health plan through Covered California for $22 a month, she said.
“If I get another job, it may be part-time and may not provide benefits,” said Cataline, who is 59. “Many of the people who are unemployed have to take temporary jobs, so for me Obamacare is a blessing.”
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report. Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.