Small firms slow to shop in exchange

February 1, 2012

In administrating Commonwealth Care, the Massachusetts' Connector has been hugely successful in enrolling people in subsidized health plans. As of last August, nearly 40,000 people had used the Connector to purchase Commonwealth plans.

IN 2014, STATES WILL LAUNCH health insurance exchanges that will enable individuals and small companies to purchase insurance at competitive rates. While the nuts and bolts of how such programs operate will vary from state to state, Massachusetts provides one example from which other states can learn.

As of last August, nearly 40,000 people had used the Connector to purchase Commonwealth Choice plans, according to a November report sponsored by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation. Members include more than 30,000 individuals, more than 3,200 young adults and roughly 6,500 members covered under small business plans.

Although individuals can purchase the same products for the same price directly from the carriers, the Connector facilitates comparison shopping. Commonwealth Choice plans are grouped in three tiers-bronze, silver and gold-according to their benefit levels. Currently consumers can choose from six benefit designs and a total of 35 products.

In merging the individual and small-group markets, Massachusetts health reform restructured the private insurance market. As a result, the price of coverage for individuals has fallen, but the cost for small businesses has increased. A state report on cost trends found that, on average, premiums per-member per-month in the individual merged market were 33% lower in 2008 than premiums in the pre-reform, non-group market.

The Connector is also the exclusive seller of young adult plans, which can be purchased only by Massachusetts residents 18 to 26 years of age who are not eligible for employer-sponsored insurance or subsidized coverage. Young adult premiums are significantly lower than Commonwealth Choice plans because the plans are allowed to include higher out-of-pocket costs and optional prescription coverage.

While about half of all individuals seeking coverage now obtain it through the Connector, the exchange has had trouble making headway in the small business market, says Alan Raymond, author of the report.

That's because small businesses in Massachusetts have traditionally relied on associations and brokers to obtain coverage, he says. What's more, prior to the 2011-2012 benefit year, the state's largest insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, did not participate in Business Express, the Connector's most popular small-business product.

In an effort to encourage greater uptake, the Connector has lowered the administrative fee it levees on health plans and made it possible for small businesses to earn premium subsidies if they offer a qualifying employee wellness plan.

In administrating Commonwealth Care the Massachusetts' Connector has been "hugely" successful in enrolling people in subsidized health plans, keeping pressure on carriers and using procurement methodology to make sure plans keep rates low, he says.