How Does Covered California’s Small Employer Insurance Program Compare?

Covered California’s small employer insurance program is growing, but a private-sector competitor is growing faster.

CaliforniaChoice has 12,070 employers in its program and 218,648 enrollees. That’s up from 11,500 employers and 150,000 members last August. By comparison, Covered California has 2,289 employers and 15,633 enrollees, up from 1,7000 employers and 11,500 members in August.

Both grew, but CalChoice boomed ahead with 45 percent growth in membership from a much larger base. Covered California’s enrollment grew 35 percent over the same period — but both are looking for bigger numbers to come.

“What the ACA did was to create a level playing field for rates that used to be 15 to 20 percent higher than market,” said Ron Goldstein, president and CEO at Choice Administrators, which runs the private-sector small employer pool known as CalChoice. Risk selection is gone and choice is better, he added. “Now, if you are an employer with eight people who want choice, you can have all that at market rates.”

Sign-ups are strong at CalChoice, where the workforce is up to 185 from 132 a year ago, Goldstein said. Strong provider networks and are key, he added.

“Do you have the right network in the right geographical area? If you do, that will drive a lot of business,” he said.

CalChoice competes with Covered California — and that’s a good thing for both programs, he said. “We want (it) to continue. Their rates are a little lower in some areas, but in others, we are neck-n’-neck.”

Covered California is not alone in online enrollment challenges. The online system at CalChoice was built more than a decade ago and is being revamped before rollout in the next few months.

Meanwhile, the state health benefit exchange is rebranding what used to be called the Small Employer Health Options Program, better known as SHOP, and brokers frustrated in the early days say they are taking a second look.

“SHOP seems to be coming into its own,” said Cerrina Jensen, a local broker who is president of the Sacramento Association of Health Underwriters. “It’s certainly not going to replace CalChoice in my portfolio, but it is certainly getting another look. I am really glad to have both of these options available.”

One hurdle at Covered California is broker frustration at slow commission payment. The program acknowledged the problem at a board meeting last week. Executive director Peter Lee said he hopes past-due commissions will be paid up in May.

“Covered California will be even more appealing once they can pay agents in a timely manner,” Jensen said.

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