HHS touts new high-risk pool choices as enrollment lags

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Friday that it will be offering three choices of benefits in the federally run high-risk pools next year.

The announcement comes after HHS revealed only 8,011 people had enrolled in the high-risk pools as of this week, a far cry from the 600,000 to 700,000 Americans the Congressional Budget Office had predicted would apply by 2014. But federal officials said the number of enrollees has increased 60 percent over the past month as large states such as New York and California began enrolling people into their pools.

"We're proud of where we are," said Liz Fowler, the former Senate Finance Committee staffer who's now deputy director for policy at HHS's Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.

Richard Popper, the office's director of insurance programs, said the slow uptake compares favorably to what happened with the Children's Health Insurance Program a decade ago when it was brand new. He said a decrease in premiums of about 20 percent for some plans next year should also help.

"We're doing everything we can" to get people enrolled, he said, "and we hope the premiums will help.

The federal government operates the pools in 23 states and D.C. In those states, enrollees will have two more choices starting next year on top of the current option, which consists of a $2,500 combined medical and prescription drug deductible.

Starting Jan. 1, enrollees will also be able to choose: a plan with a $1,000 deductible for medical expenses and a separate $250 prescription drug deductible; or a plan with a $2,000 medical deductible and a separate $500 prescription drug deductible. Popper said health officials in the 27 states that are operating their own pools with federal funding have been invited to offer more choices next year, but the program is based on state flexibility, and they're not required to do so.

In a conference call with reporters, Fowler reiterated that the high-risk pools are a temporary bridge program until 2014, when low-income Americans will be eligible for subsidies to buy insurance from companies that won't be allowed to discriminate against them anymore. For now, the premiums are based on the standard rates in the current market for healthy individuals and  remain out of reach for many Americans.