By Eric Whitney
Sun, Sep 15 2013
America's biggest online health insurance retailer is getting ready for some stiff new competition from Uncle Sam.
The federal government will be opening new online marketplaces for health insurance in 34 states on Oct. 1. State governments are opening their own on the same day in the remaining states.
They're getting into a business that eHealthInsurance.com currently dominates. It's operated a clearinghouse-style online exchange since 1999 that's very similar to what state and federal governments plan to launch next month, where people who want to buy individual insurance policies enter some personal information and get the chance to buy plans from multiple carriers.
EHealth CEO Gary Lauer says he views his company as more of a partner than a competitor with the federal government as it works to get the Affordable Care Act (ACA) up and running.
“If we don't utilize all the viable means to get people enrolled, this legislation may very well fail,” Lauer said, adding: "If we don't get broad and deep enrollment across the country, this legislation is not going to work. We're really good at this. Hopefully, these government exchanges will be good at it as well.”
The woman in charge of the federal exchanges, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner is confident they'll work. And she says the White House is welcoming all the help it can get to reach its goal of enrolling 7 million Americans in new health coverage in 2014.
"Agents and brokers do a tremendous amount of work, so, to that extent, they're valued partners and we want to work with them,” she said during a recent visit to Colorado.
Business Opportunity Or Defeat?
But before recent regulations were written, it wasn’t clear what the relationship would be between online brokers like eHealthInsurance and the ACA. Would states and the federal government have a virtual monopoly on selling individual and small group polices online?
“That was going to pretty much delete - remove? Obviate? Whatever word you want to use – us, from the landscape,” Lauer said.
He spent a lot of time in Washington lobbying for access to the market. And he got it: On July 31, eHealth and four other online brokers inked a deal with the federal government to sell Obamacare policies and link their customers to the subsidies. In 2015, new ACA subsidies could help an estimated 11 million Americans afford coverage they don't have now. Lauer views that as a business opportunity.
“We're facing a market here that's easily going to double, if not triple, in size,” Lauer said.
As of now, eHealth will sell insurance in the 34 states that will have federal exchanges. The company is currently negotiating for access to the 16 state-run marketplaces but hasn't signed any agreements yet.