West and South Maui state Sen. Roz Baker expressed confidence Tuesday that the Hawai'i Health Connector, the online health insurance exchange created under "Obamacare," will be able to recover from its Oct. 1 wobbly start.
The launch came without people being able to go online and compare the dozens of insurance plans being offered, as had been promised. A software glitch was blamed for the trouble, and insurers were reportedly delayed in testing and reviewing their plan rates to ensure that they're accurately shown in the system.
"I think it can be worked out," said Baker, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee and vice chairwoman of the Health Committee. "Every program of this magnitude is bound to have a few glitches."
Baker stressed that there's "plenty of time" for consumers to get insurance plans in place by the Dec. 15 deadline to sign up for coverage that would begin Jan. 1, and she said she was optimistic that people who are in the process of getting coverage would not be penalized if their plans are not finalized by the deadline.
Today, six state House and Senate committees, including those led by Baker, will hold an informational meeting at the state Capitol for an update on the Hawai'i Health Connector and other matters relating to the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, widely known as "Obamacare."
The meeting runs from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The hearing will be televised by Capitol TV and picked up for live telecast on cable Channel 55 by Akaku: Maui Community Television, according to Jay April, Akaku's president and chief executive officer.
Officials invited to take part in the meeting include state Insurance Commissioner Gordon Ito and Coral Andrews, executive director of the Hawai'i Health Connector.
West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey, chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, said the hearing will be a forum for a number of issues related to the Health Connector, Obamacare and Hawaii's Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974.
Because Hawaii has, for decades, required employers to help provide insurance for employees who work 20 or more hours a week, the state has only about 100,000 uninsured residents, giving Hawaii with its population of nearly 1.4 million among the lowest uninsured rates (less than 8 percent) in the United States, McKelvey said.
The federal health care overhaul requires everyone to get some type of health insurance, or face fines next year. McKelvey said the intent was to compel "young immortals," people who are 30 and younger, who risk not having health insurance because they rarely get sick or injured, to join insurance pools and to reduce insurance costs and rates for the overall population.
However, the state administration has decided to switch from a community-based system, where rates are determined by multiple factors in a group of people, to one based only on age, he said. The change could lead to employers favoring younger over older employees to drive down the costs of insurance premiums because older employees place more demands on health care services.
Health insurance rates for workers who are 60 years or older could triple, McKelvey said. The situation could lead to age discrimination as it would be in the employers' interests to limit older employees to 19 hours or less (thereby not needing to provide them insurance) while giving younger employees more hours.
The state Legislature could require the community-based rates for small employers, those with 50 or fewer employees, McKelvey said.
"We're going to try to put all these unintended consequences on the table tomorrow," he said Tuesday afternoon.
Another issue to be sorted out is disabled access to the online health exchanges - for example, allowing people who are sight disabled to have full access to online computer displays of insurance rates and plans, he said.
To help people sort out the Hawai'i Health Connector, kokua, or marketplace assisters, will be available to the public through March, according to Andrews.
The marketplace assisters "are answering questions and helping consumers understand their choices and options," she said in a statement.
The connector website aims to help people choose the health insurance program that matches their financial and health care needs. Some individuals and families are eligible for subsidized coverage if they are not eligible for Medicare, Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program and are not offered affordable coverage through an employer.
Small-business employers also can get assistance in comparing plan benefits and costs, determining eligibility for tax credits, purchasing health insurance plans and simplifying employee plans into a single monthly bill for efficient processing.
The Hawai'i Health Connector can be called toll free at (877) 628-5076 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Its website is at www.hawaiihealthconnector.com.
The connector was established as a nonprofit organization in 2011 by the state Legislature through Act 205 to comply with the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Early last week, Andrews reported that the website logged 19,457 visits Oct. 1, and the connector completed 1,181 applications and received 1,257 calls at its call center.
"We continue to work collaboratively with both our state partners and health insurers to make certain that consumers will have access to accurate plan and rate information in a secure online marketplace," Andrews said.
Regarding computer glitches, Andrews said that "like many health marketplaces across the nation, we are working in earnest to add functionality in the coming days and weeks. When it comes to a family's or small business's budget and health care, we are focused on getting it right."
Health assisters in Maui County include:
* Hui No Ke Ola Pono in Wailuku, 244-4647.
* Molokai Community Health Center, 553-5038.
* Lanai Community Health Center, 565-6916.
Jessica Kaneakua, wellness director at the Molokai Health Center, said center personnel went through training on the Health Connector last month, and they were beginning to hold public informational meetings on the Friendly Isle to educate people about what health insurance plans are available.
An outreach event at the health center in Kaunakakai drew about 15 people, she said. And, in the coming weeks, informational meetings will be held on Molokai's west and east ends. Dates had not been set for those sessions.
As of Monday, fewer than 10 people had come to the Molokai center to talk about enrolling in health insurance plans, Kaneakua said.
The number of Molokai residents without insurance, particularly young people who don't believe they need it, is high, she said.
"That's why we're working so hard to get the message out," Kaneakua said, adding that she believes that the problem is a "lack of information so far."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.