WellPoint Optimistic On Exchanges Despite Slow Start

WellPoint Inc. and its Anthem Blue Cross plans made one of the biggest bets on selling insurance to individuals and families through the health law’s online exchanges. No regrets, CEO Joseph Swedish said Tuesday, despite the balky beginning.

“Despite the near-term uncertainty, we believe exchanges will be growing as a big part of the market over time,” Swedish said in his first public remarks since insurers worked overtime to enroll members by the end of the year. “We are more focused on the end game of exchanges than the twists and turns in the near term.”

Speaking at a San Francisco conference organized by investment house J.P. Morgan, Swedish gave no sign-up figures for the marketplaces. WellPoint had 35.6 million total members at the end of the year, he said.

“We saw a sizable uptick at the end of December, concurrent with the first enrollment deadline,” he said of the exchanges. “And we expect a similar bump in March, in front of the second primary enrollment deadline.”

Jan. 1 was the earliest effective date for coverage through the marketplaces. Enrollment for exchange coverage ends for most consumers March 31.

WellPoint is selling plans through the portals in 14 states. And the websites are still far from perfect, Swedish said.

“I can say that we’ve seen improvement in the front-end application process over the past several weeks, although there is still work to be done to address some of the back-end challenges,” he said. Insurers had been reporting incorrect enrollment data coming from the portals.

He also delivered what sounded like an implicit retort to criticism that some Anthem Blue Cross hospital and doctor networks are too narrow, repeatedly mentioning “affordability” and stressing that choosing caregivers carefully is the key to containing costs and improving quality. Anthem has been seeking discounts from select hospitals and doctors in return for the high volume it can deliver with what is often a No. 1 share in the individual insurance market.

WellPoint’s research shows that for consumers, “price is the dominant factor in selecting health care coverage, followed by brand and then the network of providers,” he said. “We are finding that providers are increasingly willing to align with new network structures and consider innovative payment methodologies” to keep costs down.

Despite the sunny long-term view, Swedish said there’s plenty of uncertainty, including final enrollment figures, the health of new members and other factors, for 2014.