Shopping for health insurance starts all over again Saturday as a second round of enrollment begins under President Barack Obama's health care law. Last time around in Illinois, more than 217,000 people signed up for coverage with more than three-quarters qualifying for financial assistance based on their incomes.
Illinois residents will again use the federal HealthCare.gov website to select and sign up for private health plans, with some enrolling for the first time. Others, who enrolled despite last year's rocky start, may want to switch to a better policy in their price range.
This year's prices are slightly higher for many plans. Officials are urging customers to compare all the plans available in their area to find the best deal possible and to make sure their doctors and drugs are covered. Returning customers must select a new plan by Dec. 15 to avoid being automatically re-enrolled in their current policy.
Marvin Forbish of suburban Chicago intends to switch insurers. The 63-year-old print shop owner and his 25-year-old son bought a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan last year. While Forbish has been happy with the $80 monthly premiums he pays to Blue Cross after a government subsidy, he has one complaint: "The only problem is reaching them on the phone."
Forbish recalled several long waits on hold to reach a live customer support person. "Blue Cross is a little bit overwhelmed," he said. "They're not prepared to take all the calls they're getting."
Indeed, as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois garnered more than 90 percent of the customers on the marketplace last season, about 200,000 people, new members swamped their phone lines. Complaints pummeled the company's Facebook page.
Blue Cross has added customer representatives, gave them more training, expanded call center hours and implemented a call-back feature, said spokesman Greg Thompson of Health Care Service Corporation, the operator of Blue Cross in Illinois.
Other companies, meanwhile, have sharpened their pencils to offer lower prices, rates designed to lure away some Blue Cross members. Urbana-based Health Alliance Medical Plans will have the lowest-priced silver plan in much of central Illinois, and Land of Lincoln Health will have the lowest-cost silver plan in Cook County and much of southern Illinois.
Many people still are confused about how to enroll, said Jose Munoz, the state's chief marketing officer for the Get Covered Illinois campaign. About 43 percent of uninsured Illinoisans surveyed said confusion about the process kept them from signing up, he said. The state's campaign will narrowly focus on three messages: free help available, the affordability of coverage and the quality of the health plans.
Illinoisans can get that free help at county health departments, community health centers and other locations. Insurance agents and brokers offer help without charge. Illinoisans can call (866) 311-1119 toll-free to make an appointment with a trained enrollment counselor. The GetCoveredIllinois.gov website offers information.
"Our goal is the same one we had along: to get everyone in the state covered," Munoz said.
The health law requires most people to have health insurance. The penalty for having no health insurance in 2015 is going up to $325 per adult or 2 percent of household income, whichever is greater, up to a cap.