As Trump slashes health care outreach 90 percent, Walker asks Congress to shore up system

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker discusses a compromise budget package with reporters in the cabinet room of the Capitol in Juneau on June 6, 2017. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker discusses a compromise budget in June. He joined a bipartisan group of governors last week in asking Congress to make changes to federal health care laws. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The fact that individual health insurance costs in Alaska will drop more than a fifth next year has drawn national attention. But it’s not yet clear how many Alaskans will actually sign up for the insurance. Gov. Bill Walker has joined a bipartisan group of governors in asking Congress for increased outreach to attract healthier people to the individual market.

Walker said he decided to join seven other governors in a letter asking for changes to federal health care law, because what happens at the federal level will affect Alaska.

“The governors are very involved in what happens, because sometimes those costs get shifted onto states and so we should have a say in this process,” he said.

The Aug. 30 letter to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate recommended a series of steps to increase participation by both insurers and consumers, as well as to reduce costs.

The same day the governors released the letter, President Trump’s administration announced it would cut outreach for the individual and family market by 90 percent.

“Well, I think that would be pretty devastating for Alaska, given the number of languages spoken in Alaska,” Walker said. “We need to have the ability to have the outreach effective and not cut off.”

Walker said federal outreach funding has been particularly important in reaching Alaska Native language speakers. For instance, the feds prepared an advertisement in Yupik last year.

The number of Alaskans who signed up for individual insurance fell last year. That may be the result of Moda Insurance dropping out of the Alaska market, which led to former Moda customers paying more.

One thing that could attract more customers year is the 22-percent drop in individual insurance premiums. One factor in the price cut is the Alaska Reinsurance Program. That program combines state and federal funding to cover the costs of patients with some of the most expensive-to-treat conditions.

The bipartisan governors’ letter recommended the federal government increase funding for reinsurance, and make it easier for other states to have programs like Alaska’s. Walker said other states could soon be in a similar position to Alaska as more insurers leave the marketplace.

“They are looking to Alaska, partly because we have the highest cost of health care in the nation,” Walker said. “We had to do something just because of what was happening up here. We were losing carriers.”

Heather Howard is an expert in state health insurance with Princeton University. She said support for reinsurance from the bipartisan governors draws from Alaska’s experience.

“That’s really a validation of the Alaska model, of what Alaska did last year by starting a reinsurance program, which has stabilized and actually reduced insurance premiums for the residents of Alaska,” she said.

People will have half as much time as last year to get individual and family coverage after the enrollment period begins on Nov. 1. The Trump administration moved up the deadline from Jan. 31 to Dec. 15.

Howard said it’s important to reach those who aren’t aware of the shorter time frame.

“It ends just before the holidays,” she said. “So at a time when people are pretty busy and have a lot on their plate, there’s a concern that people will miss the opportunity to sign up. The sicker people are likely to sign up, because they want and need insurance, whereas the younger and healthier people may not.”

Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska is the only remaining insurer in the individual market. Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon said most of the company’s communication in the state this fall will be in the form of letters and emails to customers. The company also is encouraging insurance brokers and others to reach out to customers prior to and during the enrollment period.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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