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Cover FL delays a mystery, but there are signs of life

By Christine Jordan Sexton and Carol Gentry
1/6/2009 © Florida Health News

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s ambitious effort to help lower the state’s number of uninsured has gotten off to a bumpy start. 

On opening day, Monday, the Cover Florida program Web site had no phone numbers or links to application forms needed to enroll in the guarantee-issue health care plans. And in an embarrassing gaffe, Gov. Charlie Crist’s office sent out a press release Monday afternoon saying the phone numbers were up, even though at that point they still weren’t. 

Tuesday morning, things were a bit better. Toll-free phone numbers for the companies were posted, and some links to other information were beginning to appear.

One thing still missing: an explanation for the delay. The Agency for Health Care Administration didn’t answer that question; spokesman Fernando Senra said in an e-mail only that the agency was working closely with the plans to resolve the problem. 

State Sen. Nan Rich, a proponent of efforts to get more Floridians health coverage, said AHCA told her staff there was a “glitch.” AHCA said it was working with the plans and governor's office to get it fixed, she said.  

AHCA had fielded “a few” phone inquiries about Cover Florida by mid-afternoon Monday and was giving callers the general customer service numbers for the companies, Senra said. AHCA also advised callers to check the site again later for updates. 

Statewide Insurance Consumer Advocate Sean Shaw said his office hasn’t had many inquiries about the program.  The Office of the Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate can be reached by telephone at (850) 413-5923, or by email at Insurance Consumer Advocate.

He said he’ll keep an eye on the program. “We want to make sure this plan is available and that people know exactly what they are getting and that they are getting what they ought to be getting.” 

Both companies that are offering statewide plans, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida and United Healthcare of Florida, told Florida Health News on Monday that they had been given no information by the state as to how to proceed.

Blues’ spokeswoman Lauralee Shapiro said her company will offer the public a toll-free number that connects to the company’s direct-sales center. While the customer service representatives there had not been briefed as of Monday morning, Shapiro said that would be addressed quickly. 

United spokesman Roger Rollman said his company will use a toll-free line that connects to a center for referral to independent insurance brokers. “It is our belief that local brokers can best respond to the needs of area residents,” he said. A recording at the number, 800-809-9831, tells brokers a Web site address where they can get information.

Florida Health Care Plans, one of four regional participants in Cover Florida, said at least 70 people called about it before Jan. 5, said Pam Mims, administrator of membership growth and retention. Mims said the company, which operates in Flagler and Volusia, posted its Cover Florida application on its website last week. If an application is received before Jan. 10 and the applicant qualifies for the program, the insurance would go into effect Feb. 1, she said.
Mims predicts that momentum for Cover Florida will grow. But she warns that people must research their options before joining any of the plans because they are not as rich or generous as employer-sponsored options.
Crist created the Cover Florida concept a year ago as a way to address the growing numbers of uninsured at a time of lean budgets. The state negotiated with private companies and granted six of them authority to sell policies that offer pruned-back benefits for an affordable price. For instance, the lowest-priced plans offer no inpatient hospital coverage. 

--Contacts for reporters: Christine Jordan Sexton and Carol Gentry.