Record Staff Writer
Local insurance brokers held a panel to pool information and hash out frustrations with upcoming health care reforms Wednesday, as part of a meeting held at Peppers Bar and Grill by the New Mexico branch of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisers (NAIFA).
The panel was composed of Roswell-based health insurance agents Sonny Espinoza, Renee Swickard and Nicole McWilliams. Swickard and McWilliams work together at Swickard Agency Inc. Not all agents present were members of NAIFA.
Attendees were split in how they viewed the initial impact of the Affordable Care Act, a set of health care reforms that go into effect nationally in January. The law includes a mandate that almost all individuals in the United States enroll in health insurance by March 31.
“I think there’s going to be very few people that this is going to be beneficial for,” said Swickard.
Bobby Villegas, an agent for Farmers Insurance, countered the frustrations of other brokers by saying that it was too soon to know how the law would ultimately affect the insurance market.
“Everyone is on the bandwagon of ‘let’s bash it, let’s destroy it,’” he said. “We’re in the construction phase.”
He used as a metaphor the construction of a highway: While the highway is being constructed, traffic is slow. When it is complete, driving is more convenient.
Villegas does not sell health insurance, but has been organizing town hall meetings to inform the public about changes in the health care market.
McWilliams said she was particularly concerned about rising insurance premiums. She said some plans offered on and off the exchange for 2014 were significantly more expensive than current plans similar to those new plans.
She said she would have to pay double the monthly premium to enroll in an exchange plan that offers similar benefits as her current Blue Cross Blue Shield plan. The exchange plan differs in that it also offers coverage for maternity and mental health, which McWilliams said she doesn’t need.
She said the subsidy offered her by the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange (NMHIX), the state’s website established to comply with the new national law, is insignificant.
“I’m not going to go on there and waste my time for five bucks,” she said.
McWilliams said she will be able to keep her current coverage through 2014, after which her current plan will not be available.
Premiums of plans on and off the exchange are changing due to growth in the pool of people seeking insurance as a result of the new health care law, according to Reena Szczepanski, executive director of the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool (NMMIP), which provides coverage for patients who do not qualify for Medicaid and cannot afford or are rejected by private insurance companies. Szczepanski was not present at the meeting Wednesday and spoke with the Daily Record over the phone.
She said that in addition to the mandate for insurance coverage causing an increase in clients in the insurance market, there are now more high risk patients seeking care through the exchange and through private carriers.
These patients are able to seek care through the new marketplace because of the Affordable Care Act’s ban on insurance companies rejecting clients based on pre-existing conditions.
In January, some high risk patients also will be required to seek care on their own as opposed to through high risk insurance programs, Szczepanski said.
Health insurance brokers present at the meeting expressed particular frustration with the website of the exchange. New Mexicans can use the website to shop for plans subsidized based on income.
Swickard said that since the NMHIX website launched, she has been approached by three clients seeking aid in enrolling in plans through NMHIX. She said she was unable to complete the enrollment process for all three clients due to glitches in the website.
Espinoza and partner Stacey Young said they also had been unable to enroll the two clients who had approached them for aid with NMHIX. MetLife agent Brian Taylor said that while he had not personally tried to enroll any clients in exchange plans, another agent in his office had attempted and had been unable to do so.
There isn’t a way to shop for subsidized plans offered by the exchange without using an exchange website.
Brokers also expressed concern about the impact of health care reform on undocumented immigrants, who do not qualify to purchase plans through NMHIX.
Some brokers said they feared for the longevity of NMMIP, which does not require its clients to have a social security number and will provide coverage for undocumented immigrants if they meet the same requirements established for all patients enrolled in the pool.
Szczepanski said that the pool is continuing to enroll patients. She said that those who qualify for plans through NMHIX will not be able to enroll in coverage through the pool after January 1. Clients of the Federal High Risk Pool, which will cease to provide coverage in January, will be enrolled in Medicaid.
New Mexico NAIFA President Jim Hawk emphasized during the meeting that NAIFA does not have a political stance on the Affordable Care Act. He said the organization is focused on education agents and the public about how to adapt to the new law.
“It’s not going away,” he said.
Wednesday’s meeting also addressed the open enrollment period for Medicare, which started Tuesday and ends Dec. 7.