Published November 08. 2013 4:00AM
New Britain - Connecticut opened the nation's first insurance stores Thursday to help people sign up for coverage, an Apple Store-style offering the state is using to fight the perception there are problems with its insurance marketplace that's separate from the flawed federal website.
Officials voiced frustration that the federal government's woes have distracted attention from state successes. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said people who've been confused by national news coverage have asked him directly when the website will be fixed so they can enroll.
"There's a whole bunch of people in Connecticut waiting for Dec. 1 to come with the presumption that the promise has been made that the system will be up and running by then," he said. "And there's no reason to wait."
Fourteen states, including Connecticut, and the District of Columbia created their own insurance marketplaces. Many of those have not reported problems with their websites and have been able to enroll thousands of people. In Connecticut, officials credit their early successes to extensive planning, hiring outside contractors to handle key tasks such as running the call center, and limiting some features on the marketplace's website early on to keep the system simple.
More than 9,500 people had enrolled in Connecticut's marketplace, known as Access Health CT, as of Thursday. During open enrollment, which ends March 31, Access Health CT hopes to sign up 100,000 people. While CEO Kevin Counihan said enrollment expectations have been exceeded so far, they "still have a ways to go."
To that end, Counihan said, his team "kind of ripped off" the concept for the store from Apple, whose retail stores offering artfully arranged gadgets, cool design and cheerful workers have made them a destination of their own.
At the brightly lit insurance store in downtown New Britain, a working-class community near Hartford, Access Health CT has stocked it with laptops, trained staff and toys for children. There, residents can sit down with a staffer and browse available insurance plans and enroll themselves and family members.
A steady stream of people showed up at the store Thursday. Some had appointments while others stopped by, seeking information about eligibility for Medicaid and subsidies for private insurance, as well as to sign up for coverage. One elderly woman walked in to make sure she didn't have to sign up for anything.
Brian Weber, a retiree from New Britain without health insurance, said he liked the idea of having a store to visit and sign up for coverage.
"I'm not a computer wizard," he admitted.
Weber said he has a friend who is also uninsured and has not yet signed up for coverage under the marketplace because he believes the program is fraught with problems.
"He hasn't come in yet and I've tried to explain it to him, just go down there," Weber said. "He just doesn't think it's going to work."
Weber said he was pleased with the experience, signing up for a private plan that will cost him about $30 a month after a federal subsidy is applied.
Counihan said the problems surrounding the federal website, healthcare.gov, have affected enrollment in Connecticut, an assertion that Malloy echoed. Counihan said Access Health CT's call center has received questions about whether people need to wait until the website is fixed or whether they need to instead complete a paper application.
"People are human," he said. "We're all the same. If you get this kind of onslaught of publicity that the healthcare.gov has had, I think it's not unnatural that people are going to get confused."
Access Health CT also opened a second store in New Haven, and other stores may follow.
Laid off last year from his job as a truck driver, Anastas Premto, 47, said he decided make the eight-mile drive from his home in Wethersfield to the New Britain store to see whether he could get a policy that's less expensive than his COBRA coverage.
"I don't like talking on the phone because my English is not so perfect," said Premto, who emigrated to the U.S. from Albania in 1996. "It's nice when you talk with the people. On the phone it's different. It's more hard for me."