DENVER — Colorado's state-run insurance exchange opened for its second year of business Saturday, and health officials are hoping to attract a third more customers.
Connect For Health attracted about 150,000 customers in its first year. Exchange officials say they want to keep those customers and add about 50,000 more for next year.
Here are some changes Colorado customers can expect when they shop for health insurance this year:
SUBSIDIES ARE DROPPING
Good news and bad news — falling insurance rates in many areas mean that some 80 percent of Colorado shoppers who get tax credits or subsidies for health insurance will see those credits drop, too.
That's because a formula used to calculate subsidies has been changed. The low-cost carrier in every Colorado county but one, Colorado HealthOP, has dropped rates used to calculate those credits. The result could mean higher overall bills for some. Even if their premiums drop, their subsidies may drop more.
Connect For Health has sent letters to customers explaining the changes. They're encouraging people to shop around to see if they can find a better option. But customers who don't act will be automatically renewed for 2015 — sometimes with higher costs.
The insurance shopping place has 176 plans, up from 150 last year. Not all plans are available in all areas. The tiered system to describe those plans — bronze, silver, gold and platinum — isn't changing.
NEW HELP ON THE WEBSITE
Connect For Health experienced volume delays last year, but nothing like the software meltdowns that plagued the federal exchange or some other state-run exchanges. Still, exchange officials are touting what they call a smoother experience on the website. There's a new avatar to act as a virtual assistant, which they've dubbed "Kyla."
Another change is a smoother process for establishing subsidies. Some complained that the first step of the process — establishing Medicaid eligibility or financial aid — was onerous, especially for the 40 percent of customers who didn't get any public assistance. Connect For Health officials say they've streamlined the financial checks to make it faster for shoppers to move on from establishing what subsidies they'll get to shopping for insurance.
"We're not quite as easy as Travelocity yet, but we're getting there," said Connect For Health spokesman Luke Clarke.
NEW MEDICATION SCREENER
Shoppers have a new option of filtering results to check for medication coverage. Say the shopper needs an expensive cholesterol-lowering medication. Before, that shopper had to comb through each individual option to find out how much an insurance plan would cover that drug. This year's exchange allows users to screen for only plans that cover a certain medication. So a shopper can enter, say, "Lipitor," and not bother combing through plans that don't cover it.
Connect For Health is spending about $4.8 million on marketing this year, down more than half from last tear. That means fewer TV ads and such encouraging people to sign up for health insurance.
Exchange officials say there will still be plenty of help for shoppers, though. They've added staffers to guide them through the process, and are again re-opening physical storefronts to serve walk-in customers. Stores open Saturday in Denver, Commerce City and Greeley, with more storefronts coming later.