By John Toole
---- — Some people are still frustrated by New Hampshire’s new health insurance exchange, even as more check it out and sign up for coverage.
But the program is starting to get positive reviews from other consumers.
Helena Day, a former Derry resident who now lives in Manchester, said her new policy cuts her monthly expense nearly in half to $360, reduces her deductible from $10,000 to $2,500 and provides her with dental coverage for the first time in years.
“I’m one of the winners in this,” said Day, a recent widow.
The state’s Health Exchange Advisory Board, meeting yesterday, acknowledged more people have been able to apply online via healthcare.gov under the Affordable Care Act.
Earlier this week, federal Health and Human Services officials released a report showing 1,300 New Hampshire residents selected an insurance plan last month, up from just 269 in October, the first month when technical problems inhibited consumers.
“The website was a pain in the butt. It was so slow,” said Cheryl Atkinson, a mother from Derry, recalling her first experience this fall. “It took five minutes just to get to the next page.”
Later, when she was able to work through the system, the results disappointed.
One plan would have cost $220 a month, another $150, she said.
“I almost fell off my seat, if they call that affordable,” Atkinson said.
She wondered how to swing that expense amid housing, utility and food expenses.
At least Atkinson could get to the numbers.
Cheryl Lane of Derry has tried unsuccessfully for two months to get that far.
Lane also is a single mother, engaged to be married.
“I keep getting error codes or having to re-enter all the information for my seven family members,” she said. “It’s ridiculous and the support people have no idea what they are doing.”
Lane had looked forward to the insurance exchange because purchasing insurance on her own was too costly at $1,800 or more a month.
“It’s very discouraging,” she said. “This website has been a nightmare for us.”
But it’s not just those error codes or that Social Security numbers have been entered and vanished.
“I feel like everybody we got on the phone, not one, knows exactly what they should be doing,” Lane said.
That includes the agent who was eating and burped in her ear.
“I told him this is a serious matter, I’m trying to get insurance for my family, and you’re not taking it very seriously,” Lane said.
Day’s experience was vastly different.
“If you have a problem, you can call the hotline,” she said. “Everyone I talked to was over-the-top helpful.”
But Day admits it was sometimes challenging.
“Sometimes it takes a little bit longer,” she said. “You have to be persistent. It pays off.”
Karen Kelly, a community organizer with New Hampshire Citizens Alliance, which has worked on education and advocacy efforts for enrollments, said the system does appear to be improving.
She attended the state advisory board meeting yesterday.
“It was really very positive,” Kelly said.
Stories like Day’s are what Kelly said she is hearing more and more every day.
Glitches are fewer.
“It is not so difficult to get through the website,” Kelly said.
The deadline for enrollments has just been extended to Dec. 23.
She is encouraging people to get help if they need it. They can call 1-800-318-2596 or visit localhelp.healthcare.gov.
“Probably their best bet is to sit down with somebody,” Kelly said.
Lane might have signed up for classes at Derry Public Library.
“I didn’t bother,” she said. “The problems aren’t something a class can help me with.”
Participation in those classes at the library is down.
“Attendance has declined substantially,” adult services librarian Sherry Bailey said. “Interest is really low.”
Fifty-two participated in September. Sixteen did so in October, just two in November.
People were eager to learn amid publicity about the exchange, but were disappointed when the program opened, she said.
“People were being overloaded with information and they were frustrated the website was not functional,” Bailey said.
New Hampshire statistics released by the federal government showed 17,234 people have applied for coverage and 12,768 have been deemed eligible for a plan. But just over 1,500 have enrolled in a plan.
As the number of participants grows, so does the realization that the system is very much evolving.
Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., this week announced New Hampshire consumers can expect more choices a year from now.
Minuteman Health Inc. of Massachusetts has been approved by federal regulators to expand in New Hampshire with new health care plans.
Shea-Porter had encouraged regulators to allow Minuteman Health into New Hampshire to give consumers more options.
“I am pleased that New Hampshire families and individuals will have more choices for coverage, and I will continue working to increase competition and drive down health care costs,” Shea-Porter said.