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Officials turn to other methods for releasing premiums for insurance in the marketplace in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 3, 2013 - In response to software glitches and heavy consumer demand on the health insurance marketplace website, federal health officials are offering other ways for people to learn more about the premiums for the new coverage.

The health insurance marketplace opened Tuesday at healthcare.gov, but the large volume of consumers seeking to access information about premiums and co-pays caused the system to come to a crawl or stop running altogether, federal officials said.

Late Tuesday evening, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services began releasing basic data in a printout format. The information for Missouri breaks the state into 10 areas. The data in each offers a list of marketplace plans from two insurers serving Missouri: Coventry Health Care and Anthem. 

The chart below shows rating areas, one plan and premiums consumers can expect to be charged for coverage. The cost in many instances will be lower than what’s listed here because consumers will be eligible for subsidies, depending on income.

Missouri’s plans will include three metallic designations – bronze, silver and gold. The chart, developed by the Missouri Foundation for Health, displays average monthly premiums before tax credits in a given rate area, in up to seven silver plans. The data gives consumers an idea of the cost of coverage for someone up to age 20, as well as someone who is age 21, 27, 40 and 55.

To read the chart, consumers should first find the county in which they live in the far right, and then choose an age group. The plan excludes families, a category where premiums will be higher than what’s listed on the chart.

Perhaps the most revealing point on the chart is that coverage generally will be less expensive in urban areas. The least expensive coverage, according to the data, will be in the Kansas City and Greene County areas, followed by the St. Louis area and the areas of McDonald, Jasper, Barton and Newton counties. The most expensive premiums will be in Missouri’s Bootheel. Because there is less buying power in rural areas, where the number of potential insured is lower, premiums tend to be higher.

Federal officials are correcting the glitches on the healthcare.gov website. One common problem experienced by the Beacon and several other media outlets nationwide involved an inability to submit a security password when using the site. Once users reached the password screen, the system refused to offer questions that were supposed to be used to generate passwords – such as your mother’s maiden name or a favorite pet.

Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, acknowledged that problem when she hosted a conference call with reporters late Tuesday.

She downplayed the possibility that the issue stemmed from flaws in the software and said the system was overwhelmed by the large number of consumers trying to use it.

By Tuesday afternoon, more than 2.8 million users had visited healthcare.gov. The high number of visits to the website confirmed that consumers are seeking the help the Affordable Care Act is offering, Tavenner said.

“In less than 15 hours, our site traffic has tripled. What’s more, there were seven times more users on the marketplace website (Tuesday) than there has ever been on the Medicare.gov website at any one given time.”

She echoed comments by software experts that glitches are common when new software is rolled out, as when Apple introduced its first iPhone and when the federal government added and offered a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

In any product launch, she said, “there are going to be glitches. As they arise, we will fix them.” She added consumers had options other than trying to log onto healthcare.gov yesterday and some used them. These include the 81,000 consumers who turned to call centers for help, and 60,000 who used web chats, she said.

In the meantime, officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County, along with numerous nonprofit groups are gearing up for opening marketplace enrollment assistance sites, starting next week. Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis health director Pam Walker have announced that, beginning Monday, assistance sites will be open several hours a day at many city libraries and at Connect Care, the urgent care facility on Delmar, east of DeBaliviere.

In St. Louis County, Katherine Lucas-Johnson, director of public relations and human resources, says the county’s Community Action Agency will coordinate efforts across the county to help people enroll in the exchange program.

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