by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The impact of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) — otherwise known as Obamacare — is beginning to be felt in Morrison County as individuals, families and businesses learn about changes to their health insurance coverage in the wake of the health care exchange rollout, Oct. 1.
Many residents have already seen increases in monthly health insurance rates effective Jan. 1, 2014, when the ACA is due to become law.
To help citizens meet the requirements of the ACA, the state of Minnesota established a health care exchange, MNSure. It was set up to provide an online marketplace for people to compare insurance policies from several companies in the state, beginning Oct. 1.
Jim Block is a self-employed farmer with a wife and two children. The family is currently paying 15 percent of its annual gross income for private health insurance. Block was recently notified that in order to keep his current plan, he will pay 30 percent more per month.
“I was floored,” he said. “My wife and I discussed that we didn’t want to change anything, but we will have to pay more to keep our policy. When I checked on MNSure, all the deductibles there are at least $2,000 higher for the same monthly premium. But our plan is fairly reasonable yet compared to some people we’ve talked to.”
Rosi Przybilla, owner of Marshik Insurance in Little Falls, has been writing health insurance policies since the late 1980s. Although she is a certified assister for MNSure, she has run into one brick wall after another.
“We are very frustrated,” she said. “Our broker portal was supposed to be up and running Oct. 1 and we still are not able to use it. Twelve days ago I made six attempts to log in to the system. Then I was told the code was not any good. When I called in to get a new one, they said it would take at least a week. It’s been 12 days and we still don’t have it.”
The frustrations escalate when working with clients.
“We spent 45 minutes entering all the information for one man and right at the end it locked up and he couldn’t get his rates,” she said.
Adelle Chisholm, owner of the recently-opened Baby’s on Broadway, and her self-employed husband just lost their health plan from her previous job. With two young children and current health care needs, she started the search for a new plan but was surprised by what she found out.
“When I went looking for new coverage, I was told to wait until January because of all the changes happening,” she said.
In the meantime, Chisholm requires a daily medication. After getting quotes from four local pharmacies, the lowest of which was several hundred dollars, she was advised by a pharmacist to purchase it from Canada for less than 10 percent of that cost.
Linda Burggraff, who owns Lin Furniture in Little Falls with her husband, Dave, currently has a very high deductible on their health coverage, by choice.
“We have been told that our deductible is being reduced according to the ACA,” she said. “So our rates are going to go way up.”
John Holthaus of Primary Benefit Services in Little Falls handles many small-group policies for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
“Small-group policies will be restructured when they renew after Jan. 1, 2014,” he said. “Eighty percent will pay more after the restructuring.”
One small-group policy Holthaus recently worked on, for a business with 12-15 employees participating in the health plan, showed an anticipated 63 percent premium increase in rates with a reduction in benefits.
“All of our small-group policies have had a minimum increase of about 25 percent,” he said.
Another group plan is looking at an increase of out-of-pocket limits for plan members from $8,000 to $12,000 per year.
“The business owner said that his people can’t manage that,” said Holthaus.
It was thought that individually-purchased policies would be terminated effective Dec 31. Thursday, Holthaus found out that President Obama has indicated that individuals should be allowed to keep their policies.
“We’ll see if people can buy back their terminated policies,” Holthaus said. “But it has to go to the state first, and we have no idea what the state is going to do. Insurance companies have been working on logistical and administrative changes for more than two years, and spending so much time and money — they cannot turn around suddenly and put it all back.”
Przybilla and Holthaus both expressed additional frustration at discovering that the MNSure website was not available Monday, Nov. 11.
“How can a website need a vacation?” Holthaus asked.
“Our clients were here and we were ready to work,” Przybilla said.
Holthaus pointed out that there are many more plans available outside of MNSure than there are in the exchange.
“The only reason I can see to go to MNSure is to get a subsidy, if a person is eligible,” he said. “Otherwise, people can look outside the exchange for identical policies from the same companies at different rates.”
The impact to Morrison County can be projected to be bigger than individual households or businesses.
“The small-group plans that we work with represent every industry in the area,” Holthaus said. “Every industry will feel the pressure of increased health care premiums without an increase in revenue, and the impact will be on the consumer’s wallet.”