By Caroline Humer
(Reuters) - U.S. insurers planning to sell 2015 Obamacare health plans expect at least 20 percent growth in customers and in some states anticipate more than doubling sign-ups.
In interviews with Reuters, half a dozen privately held and non-profit health insurers around the country say they are expecting this growth based on interest from potential customers they are hearing about through their call centers, sales forces and brokers.
With the start of enrollment barely two weeks away, their assessment is dramatically different from a year ago, when it was unclear how many Americans would apply for the brand new insurance and income-based subsidies offered under President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
Despite crippling technology issues with the HealthCare.gov website, more than 7 million people signed up for Obamacare plans in 2014.
In Florida, Jason Alford, sales director at Health First Health Plans Inc, expects to more than double customers in Affordable Care Act compliant plans from the 4,400 it signed up this year.
"We've just talked to so many people in the market who for one of 5 or 6 different reasons didn't enroll in 2014. We had many folks call this summer who really don't understand the open enrollment period. They are calling in August to sign up for a plan because they think it's all-year enrollment," he explained.
When the three-month enrollment period opens on Nov. 15, it will be a critical juncture for insurers who need to build profitable businesses that can stand up as government financial supports to insurers who sell these plans decline in the next two years.
Aimed at extending health insurance to 25 million people, the law has been controversial for its cost to taxpayers and the changes it has spurred in coverage. Millions of individual plans were canceled for 2014 and some employers stopped insuring part-time workers.
Support for the law tends to fall along political lines and has waned overall, polls say. Public support fell to 40 percent in 2014, from 44 percent in 2012 and 42 percent in 2010, Harvard researchers said this week.
The exchanges have become a big business for insurers like Aetna Inc and WellPoint Inc, who enrolled hundreds of thousands of new customers last year. UnitedHealth Group Inc, barely on the exchanges in 2014, will be in two dozen states. These insurers have not discussed 2015 forecasts.
There is political importance for Obama as well. The Congressional Budget Office expects 13 million people to buy exchange plans in 2015 and 24 million in 2016. If those numbers materialize, it will make it even more difficult for Republicans and other foes to uproot the embattled law.
Insurers would not say whether they agreed with CBO forecasts, but many interviewed by Reuters have doubled or tripled staffing to handle applicants. Some saw customer calls up 30 percent in October. Only those with qualifying events such as job loss can buy insurance outside the regular enrollment period.
In Pennsylvania, where Medicaid is being expanded, Independence Blue Cross hopes to add about 30,000 new customers to the 165,000 it signed up for 2014 plans.
"We're thinking pretty positive. Last week we saw our call center activity increase 31 percent from a call volume standpoint versus the previous few weeks," Brian Lobley, a senior vice president at Independence Blue Cross in Pennsylvania, said in an interview.
Lobley is seeing growth at a slower pace than CBO suggests because some customers may qualify for benefits under Medicaid when the state makes it available for more residents.
In Texas, one small insurer predicts growth of 15,000 to 40,000 more customers from the fewer than 500 it signed up last year.
Non-profit insurer Community Health Choice Inc in Houston priced premium rates too high and was mostly shut out in 2014, said Daisy Morales, vice president of marketing. This year, with more competitive premiums, it expects to win new customers by gaining market share and because of forecasts for growth in the state. The insurer foresees one million new sign-ups in Texas in addition to the more than 700,000 who enrolled in 2014.
"It's not like we're starting from scratch, like we were last year," Morales said.
(Reporting by Caroline Humer; additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington; editing by Gunna Dickson)