- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - The Hawaii Health Connector spent $130 million in federal grant money, but will be closing its doors after failing to achieve financial sustainability.

The last day for the state-based health insurance exchange will be Friday, and its customers are re-enrolling on the federal website healthcare.gov.

So far, just 4,500 people in Hawaii have signed up on the federal website. Issues with healthcare.gov led to enrollment delays but those problems have improved, said Jeff Kissel, outgoing executive director of the Connector.

“It’s still a long time,” Kissel said about the enrollment process. “The best we’ve done is 35 minutes. Most of them are well over an hour.”

The Connector’s 30 employees, who handled finances, grant reporting and enrollment changes, will be leaving their jobs. Some have been hired by the state to help with the transition during the open enrollment period, said Laurel Johnston, Gov. David Ige’s deputy chief of staff, in an email.

Because of its pending dissolution, the Hawaii Health Connector had to cancel its contracts with organizations that were helping with outreach efforts, including so-called navigators who are reaching out to those with language barriers to tell them they have to re-enroll to continue getting benefits. But state officials have been executing emergency contracts to get those services going, Johnston said.

Open enrollment ends Jan. 31. But people have to enroll by Dec. 15 if they want their benefits to start by Jan. 1.

Some are concerned that the timing of the staff transition will impact enrollment efforts, said state Rep. Angus McKelvey, a Maui Democrat.

“They’re awarding the contracts to the navigators, but they’re not set up, so I think for this open enrollment it’s bad timing to do this,” McKelvey said.

Migrants from Pacific island nations who are in Hawaii under the Compact of Free Association are having a harder time enrolling in the federal website, because the federal government requires more documentation to enroll in health plans than the state system required, McKelvey said. The group, known as COFA migrants, is allowed to live and work in the state freely, but they haven’t been eligible for federal Medicaid benefits since the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

“Those that could have been accepted by the state website are being bounced because they don’t have the documentation,” McKelvey said. “I hope our friends in Washington are ready to pick up their coverage finally, because they’re the ones who left them hanging high and dry by forcing this transition during open enrollment.”

Johnston said the state also is working on getting more language interpreters and has made several requests of federal agencies for additional resources to help COFA migrants during open enrollment.

The transition is expected to cost $27 million to $30 million. The Hawaii Health Connector says about 38,000 people had been enrolled in health insurance plans through the state-based website. However, according to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, only 8,200 people had followed through and paid their premiums.

Despite the problems, Kissel said creating the Hawaii Health Connector was worth it. “We saved a bunch of lives,” he said.

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