Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog

Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog. Our blog discusses various topics around how health care reform is affecting the people of Illinois. We present a variety of different perspectives from health care experts, both from our state, and nationally. For more information please visit IllinoisHealthMatters.org.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Small Businesses in Illinois Lack Knowledge of What the ACA Has to Offer Them

With Illinois granted early access to the Small Business Health Options Program exchange, or SHOP, small businesses in the state already have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with a new online resource for purchasing health insurance for their employees.

For those that qualify, purchasing health insurance through the SHOP exchange can represent a smart business decision. They can receive tax credits covering up to 50% of their contribution to employee premiums, plus the SHOP allows small businesses to combine their purchasing with other small businesses to keep costs low.

The healthcare law does not require small businesses with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees to provide health insurance. Because 94% of businesses in Illinois employ fewer than 50 people, a large majority are exempt from offering health insurance.

The SHOP was meant to minimize the number of people left out of health reform by helping small businesses provide health insurance anyway, with tax credits and collaborative purchasing power incentivizing this option by keeping costs lower.

But to what extent are small businesses taking advantage of the SHOP? Health & Disability Advocates and Crain’s Chicago Business teamed up to find out and conducted a survey of small business owners. The results are documented in a recently released report from Health & Disability Advocates and an article in Crain's Chicago Business.

The survey found that small businesses are not using the SHOP to purchase health insurance and are largely uninformed about it:
  • Fewer than 18% of small business owners said they had learned “a lot” or a “a great deal” about the SHOP.
  • Only 11% took advantage of the small business healthcare tax credit.
  • And finally, 31% of small businesses surveyed said they did not know whether they were receiving the small business healthcare tax credit.

These findings mirror national trends. In a national survey by the National Small Business Association, 8% of small business owners reported they would use the SHOP to buy health insurance. Similar figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation were cited in a recent blog post at The New York Times.

Small businesses would gain from outreach and education on benefits of the SHOP and how to use this resource. Informing the business owners about the SHOP would equip them with information that they could use to enroll their employees in health insurance, an important benefit that helps in retaining and attracting workers.

Since small businesses overwhelmingly rely on brokers when purchasing insurance, the broker community could be a resource in outreach and education efforts. Indeed, brokers are increasingly viewed as vital partners in healthcare outreach and enrollment efforts. For example, during the first enrollment period they played a key role in the famously successful effort in Kentucky. Partnering with brokers to conduct outreach can help increase the numbers of small businesses that offer health insurance – and the number of individuals enrolled in healthcare.

The bottom line is that small businesses in Illinois are not aware of the Small Business Health Options Program, the tax credits available to them, or other ACA provisions that could benefit them. For us to effectively reach these important job creators and help them take advantage of these provisions, we must engage the broker community to provide this new outreach and education to their existing clients.

Bryce Marable MSW
Policy Analyst
Health & Disability Advocates
Blogger Tricks

Monday, October 27, 2014

Illinois Entrepreneurs and Small Business Need SHOP Employee Choice

Illinois is one of 18 states recently granted a delay by the Department of Health and Human Services for the employee choice feature of the small business health options program marketplace, or SHOP.

But what exactly is employee choice, and why is this important to small business owners? Below are some frequently asked questions and answers to help small employers learn more about this crucial provision of the SHOP.

Q: Just what is employee choice?
A: Employee choice is a feature of SHOP that allows small business workers to choose from a number of plans from different insurance carriers. The employer chooses a healthcare plan tier level (bronze, silver, gold and platinum), and the employee then chooses among a variety of health insurance carriers within that tier.

The healthcare plan tier level is based upon what percentage of healthcare costs a plan will cover. For bronze plans, insurers pay 60%. For silver plans, insurers pay 70% of healthcare expenses. Gold plans pay 80% and platinum plans pay 90%. The employee choice option is important to employers and their workers because it allows employees to pick a plan and carrier that works best for their needs, instead of the business owner choosing for them.

Q: Why is the employee choice feature important to small businesses?
A: By including employee choice in the SHOP, the Affordable Care Act reverses a longstanding market trend that left small employers on unequal footing. These kinds of benefits have historically been reserved for large businesses and public employees, while small businesses often have to offer a “one-size fits all” plan with added cost and fewer benefits.

Based on Small Business Majority’s opinion polling, it is clear small business owners want to offer this to their employees. The Small Business Majority found two-thirds of small employers believe allowing employees to choose from multiple carriers is an important element of the SHOP. And for small businesses, this component is fundamental in distinguishing the new SHOP marketplace from the outside health insurance market.

Q: What impact does the delay of employee choice have on Illinois’ small businesses?
A: The HHS final rule allowing states to opt out of employee choice for yet another year harms small businesses because it puts them at a competitive disadvantage to large firms that are able to offer a choice of plans to their employees. In states like Illinois, where the SHOP marketplace is run by the federal government, allowing further delay of employee choice puts small businesses at a competitive disadvantage to small employers in other states where marketplaces have employee choice.

Q: When will Illinois small businesses have access to employee choice through SHOP?
A: Barring any further delays, Illinois will implement employee choice in 2016. Employers will then be able to offer the additional benefit of allowing their employees to choose which insurance carrier they’d prefer to use for their health insurance.

While the Administration’s decision to allow states to delay employee choice for an additional year was a letdown for small business owners, the SHOP still helps small employers compare and evaluate health insurance options and get the small business tax credit to help with employee premiums.

Learn more about the SHOP, employee choice and enrollment by reading the Small Business Majority’s Health Coverage Guide which contains a wealth of information for small business owners regarding enrollment, the Affordable Care Act, and the healthcare system.

Jesse Greenberg
Director, Midwest and West
Small Business Majority

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Illinois Granted Early Access to SHOP Marketplace

Yes, the Affordable Care Act offers individuals and families quality health insurance, but did you know small employers with less than 50 full-time equivalent employees can take full advantage of the Health Insurance Marketplace? Online functionality for the SHOP, aka the Small Business Health Options Program, is available starting later this October as part of SHOP early access, which is only available to 5 states. Illinois is one of the lucky few. Brokers and Small Businesses, check it out at Healthcare.gov!

This incremental launch will help identify issues early and assist brokers and businesses in building confidence in utilizing the SHOP online system. The SHOP Call Center can be reached at 1-800-706-7893 (TTY: 711) Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST.

During SHOP early access, Illinoisians can do the following to initiate enrollment:

  •         Establish a Marketplace SHOP account
  •         Establish an agent or broker to their account if they wish
  •         Complete an employer application
  •        Obtain an eligibility determination
  •         Upload an employee roster when enrollment functionality is available
  •          Starting in November, browse health plans with coverage starting in 2015


While small businesses have always had group plan options, many even available online, there were challenges that got in the way of providing group coverage to their employees. Premiums were expensive and small businesses lacked the purchasing power of larger organizations. The SHOP makes some pretty substantial changes to the ways in which small businesses can buy plans.
First, financial assistance is now available in the form of a tax credit. This can substantially help employers by covering up to 50% of employer contributions towards employee premiums. This assistance provides the opportunity for businesses to offer employee coverage where it would have previously been unaffordable. Second, the SHOP helps small businesses harness the purchasing power of other small businesses, thus letting them play in the big leagues along with larger organizations.

Small businesses do not have to offer health benefits under the Affordable Care Act, but it is in their best interest to check out options and see what is possible, particularly if they are concerned with employee retention. Whether or not they decide to provide group health insurance coverage, small businesses are nonetheless required to inform employees of the Health Insurance Marketplace, so that individual coverage options can be explored.
Brokers and Small Businesses take note. The time is now to explore options, prepare, and get ready for a new system opening up possibilities for small businesses in Illinois.  

For more information on the SHOP:
TAKE OUR SURVEY HDA and Crain’s Chicago Business are teaming up to poll local small businesses about new health benefit options. Why participate? By taking this short survey about the changing healthcare landscape, you can inform policymakers, insurers and other small business owners. Results will run in a November 17 article in Crain’s. Take the survey now.

Emily Gelber MSW, LSW
Health Policy Analyst
  Health & Disability Advocates

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Providers Will Make Medicaid Care Coordination a Success

If the opening of the health insurance marketplace taught people anything, it’s that choosing health insurance is tough. Suddenly, people had to make a thorough evaluation of their finances, the types of care they depended on, the medications they needed, and more.

Equally important, but receiving a lot less attention are the similar challenges facing people who are trying to pick a coordinated care plan under Medicaid. Generally, having choices is a good thing, but being unarmed to make the best decision is scary. So, how does one pick? No doubt, case managers, doctors, social workers, and community organizations hear this question all the time. When the system of health care is changing so rapidly, how are front-line professionals prepared to handle the number of questions and the confusion when they may not have a grasp on what this new system is going to look like in the first place?

Almost everyone who has Medicaid in Illinois will be required to pick a coordinated care plan. These plans are offered by managed care organizations (such as Aetna and Blue Cross) and by provider groups (such as Be Well Partners in Health) that have chosen to start innovations projects, which try new ways of managing care. Collectively, they are referred to as managed care entities, but for the sake of discussion, we will refer to them here as Medicaid health plans.

Medicaid health plans must include all of the benefits traditionally offered by Medicaid, a plan can also choose to provide more benefits than Medicaid. In addition, all plans require that members choose a primary care physician. Members with more complex care needs will also be assigned a case manager, either a nurse or social worker.

Why the Change

This shift is happening because 50% of Medicaid recipients are required by law to enter into coordinated care by 2015. But aside from the legal requirement, the move into coordinated care has a number of additional drivers, including cost containment. Medicaid costs are high, often a result of inefficiencies, uncoordinated care, and a fee-for-service reimbursement structure. The hope is that the move to coordinated care will reduce costs.

As part of the move to coordinated care, the payment structure is changing. Many, but not all, Medicaid health plans will receive a capitated rate to coordinate and provide care for Medicaid members, meaning a per-member monthly reimbursement regardless of the services provided. Providers will then contract with Medicaid health plans and can negotiate their rates of reimbursement. So, Medicaid health plans receive a capitated rate, providers then negotiate reimbursement rates with the particular Medicaid health plan. Medicaid health plans are thus incentivized to control costs, because they are going to make money based upon members receiving quality care at a lower cost, rather than based upon the number of services provided.

What will all of this mean for Medicaid recipients? Each Medicaid member will receive a letter detailing health plan options available through Medicaid (many have already received them) from the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Most will have to choose one of the plan options detailed in that letter. If they fail to choose a plan, a selection will be made for them based on their past providers, location, and previous health plan affiliation.

The choices in the letter will be based upon the Medicaid population group and where that particular member lives. For example, ACA adults have different options than Medicaid enrollees that qualified based upon disability or age; people who live in metro Chicago will choose from a different set of plans from those who live downstate. As members of these plans, there will be new rules to follow, such as using networks specific to their plan. But the plans are all Medicaid, so all of the services an individual previously had access to will remain available. And this is when the provider gets asked for help. How do they help someone choose?

The Client Enrollment Broker

Fortunately, the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services has created something called the client enrollment broker. This is service that helps Medicaid members get connected to a Medicaid health plan. The client enrollment broker website (enrollhfs.illinois.gov) is where one can find information on all of the available plans, including any extra benefits that might be available, such as an allowance for over the counter products. The site has links to the website of each specific plan, where consumers can review the details of each plan.

Of course, not everyone is tech savvy, or even has internet access. So the client enrollment broker is also available to assist with enrollment by phone. The client enrollment broker can be reached at 877-912-8880 Monday to Friday from 8 am to 7 pm and on Saturdays 9 am to 3 pm. The call is free.

Before speaking with the client enrollment broker, Medicaid members will want to focus on the questions to ask. They may want to write them down – much like people are advised to write down what they want to ask the doctor during an office visit. Here are some things they will need to consider when choosing a Medicaid coordinated care plan, and to discuss with the client enrollment broker if they call:

  • The letter received in the mail will have a primary care provider listed. That is the provider that will be assigned to them if they do not choose a primary care provider and plan themselves. If the person has a primary care physician at present, it will be important to ask about plans with this provider in network. Otherwise, they may want to choose one before calling the client enrollment broker.
  • Anyone with special healthcare needs should ask if their specialists are in-network.
  • Anyone who visits facilities like skilled nursing or hospitals should ask whether those facilities are in-network.
  • The person also should consider what medications they are taking. Although Medicaid-covered drugs should be included in the formulary for every plan, there could be variations in copays or in generics vs. brand-name availability.

The client enrollment broker will ask for a social security number and the Medicaid member should have that available for the call.

This is a lot to consider, and the Medicaid population was not prepared to make these decisions alone. For someone who has never enrolled in a health plan before, or has only ever had one choice, these changes may prove overwhelming.

Provider Participation Is Essential

So it is not surprising that providers will be called upon to assist clients in making smart choices. Without provider participation, individuals may not be able to make appropriate and educated enrollment decisions that directly impact access to and continuity of care. And just as important, providers can do their best to simplify these decisions by joining networks and being knowledgeable about their own health plan network membership. Even after members are enrolled, providers can help them navigate the new and narrower networks to avoid the costs of going out of network for care.

If one thing is clear it's that providers need to be engaged in the evolution of Medicaid. Without their involvement, foreign language speakers will not find providers that can speak to them, people with complex illness will not connect with physicians and specialists who have experience with those conditions, and patients with long-established doctor-patient relationships will suddenly be unable to see their doctor. Provider participation and networking is the solution to all of these issues.

But ultimately, providers need to be participating in the coordinated care system for reasons that go above and beyond making health plan choices easier for people on Medicaid. Right now, the entire Medicaid system – both traditional and expanded Medicaid – is rapidly transforming into a coordinated care system. That means that many clients or patients will be in that system, and they will be restricted to those networks. To keep their Medicaid patients, providers need to be in that system as well.

Another benefit is that billing can be simplified with Medicaid health plans. Back office billing functions – which are notoriously complicated and slow with fee-for-service Medicaid – could start to become more straightforward. In fact, Medicaid health plans should actually reimburse efficiently since they are contractually obligated to pay in a timely manner. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Care coordination is here and it is happening now. It’s time to participate. Providers can either play a part, or patients will feel the consequences. And really, so will providers.

By Emily Gelber MSW, LSW
Health Policy Analyst
Health & Disability Advocates

Learn more about Medicaid Care Coordination.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Did Obamacare Destroy Competition in the Private Insurance Market?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Affordable Care Act was that it would be the death of the private insurance marketplace. Opponents of healthcare reform cautioned that the law change would crowd out private innovation in the market and make insurance carriers less interested in competing.

If we take a closer look back at the progression of insurance company involvement in Illinois, I think we’ll find that not only was this not the case – but in reality, the reverse was true.

Prior to the 2014 open enrollment period, the small business market in Illinois was extremely limited. If you had fewer than 50 employees, the options for group coverage were four to five carrier choices (depending on your county). These companies continued to churn business, and employers would change carriers every two to three years as their premium rate increases continued to increase. There were significant barriers to entry - and every time we saw a new carrier attempt to provide competitive options, the larger more traditional players quickly chased them out of the state.

For sole proprietors and the self-employed, the outlook was even bleaker. There were two or three competitive options, and the underwriting guidelines were so rigid that even those plans were unrealistic for many individuals hoping to gain private insurance coverage.

Reviewing the change to the market, we see that sole proprietors and the self-employed saw the biggest gain in options. The opening of the ACA Marketplaces in 2014 offered up to seven carrier choices for individuals in some regions of Illinois. Although many of the players were familiar faces, one – Land of Lincoln - was brand-new to Illinois consumers. Land of Lincoln is a co-op (oonsumer oriented and operated), a new type of insurance organization made allowable by the ACA.

The federal government has now awarded nearly $2 billion in loans to help create 24 new CO-OPs in 24 states. The CO-OP sponsors - consumer-run groups, membership associations, and other nonprofit organizations - are now moving forward to offer health coverage in competition with established commercial and nonprofit insurance companies. (Health Affairs Policy Briefs)

What about small employers? While the SHOP Marketplace faced many more struggles in Illinois, there were some indications of future hope in improving competitive choices for our state. First, Land of Lincoln did offer and enroll small employer options. This added a new type of plan for employers to consider – and because it was offered on the SHOP, employers that qualified and enrolled in their SHOP plans could take advantage of the Small Business Tax Credit.

Second, we began to see the creation and evolution of private marketplaces and partially self-funded programs being marketed to small employers. In the past, third party administrators had reserved these innovative solutions for larger clients. The need for financial solutions and minimum essential coverage has spurred creative thinking and new progressive options for forward-thinking small employers to test out. Although these solutions are in their early stages of development, they do reflect a market expansion - not contraction.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the existing small business market remained intact. All of the same original carriers that offered plans historically continued to do so in 2014. We didn’t see one single insurance company leave the state of Illinois - instead many of them continued to market aggressively to small businesses and create new plan offerings that would be both compliant with ACA rules and competitive.

As we begin to look forward to the 2015 open enrollment cycle, the question remains of whether this trend will continue or reverse. Early indications point to a growing market. Last month, the Department of Insurance in Illinois released a statement noting that 10 carriers have submitted applications to offer plans in the second year of the Marketplace. This representing a significant growth in choices in the insurance carriers and the numbers of plans they will offer from Year 1. (Get Covered Illinois). Here are the exact numbers:

Illinois Healthcare Marketplace Plan Options – Year 1 and 2
Year 1
Year 2
Submitted Options
Individual Plans120306
Small Group Plans 45198
The Illinois Department of Insurance is not expected to announce which plans it has approved until early August. However, given the significant increase in possible options, we can expect that both the individual market and small group market will see growth for 2015. Although this is positive movement, my hope is that the department will focus its expansion of plan approvals on the small group marketplace, which was significantly under-represented in choices in 2014.

In any case, the numbers show promising evidence of expanded insurance plan competition under Obamacare – something that small employers and the self-employed desperately needed prior to its enactment. We can and should consider this component of the legislation a true economic win for Illinois business.

– By Michele Thornton, MBA
Insurance and Benefits Consultant

Monday, July 7, 2014

Learn. Connect. Share. PTSD Treatment can help.

June was PTSD Awareness Month. And although spotlighting it throughout the month of June brings a lot of great information to the public, it is important to remember that PTSD is something that many individuals struggle with throughout the year.

Take the Fourth of July as an example: This great American holiday is only four days past the end of PTSD Awareness Month, but many people are not aware of the impact this holiday has on combat veterans with PTSD. For many of them, these exuberant displays of sound and light trigger combat flashbacks that last long after the last sparkler has fizzed out for the night.

This year, there has been more publicity around the effect that fireworks can have on returned vets. And there has been a growing campaign to increase PTSD awareness by placing signs in front lawns that read: "Combat Veteran Lives Here, Please Be Courteous with Your Fireworks." The experience of combat veterans on the Fourth of July is a prime example of the type of awareness that needs to continue beyond the month of June, and that is an awareness that centers on respect for those who suffered trauma in the past, and who continue to feel the effects to this day.

That being said, it’s hard to know how to be courteous of those with PSTD when you don’t have a very firm grasp on what PTSD is. Although it is most commonly associated with combat veterans – and vets as a population experience PTSD at a much higher rate – it also occurs in those who have lived through other violent experiences. The National Center for PTSD defines it as "a mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault, an accident or disaster."

Understanding that PTSD is not limited only to combat veterans is an important step in learning how to be mindful of things that may trigger flashbacks or any other cognitive or bodily symptoms. Things that might seem part of the norm – like fireworks on the Fourth of July – can actually cause a painful reliving of a traumatic moment.

The way each person experiences their PTSD is different, and the only way to be able to really get a grasp on what these individuals experience is through talking with them. However, it is understandably difficult for many to recount their stories, so it is important to be patient and supportive. Reach out if you see that your friend or family member with PTSD wants to talk and be sure to listen to their story.

If you or a loved one struggles with PTSD, or if you just want to learn more about how you can help support someone with PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs' websie has a comprehensive section devoted to the condition, the National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov). The section has resources for everything from treatment options like exposure therapy to a section specifically geared toward friends and family members.

Also, let people know that treatment is covered! The Affordable Care Act requires qualified health plans to include mental health services as an essential health benefit. The ACA also outlaws discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, so individuals with PTSD or other mental health symptoms need not be worried that they will be denied coverage or that their coverage will be cancelled.

This year’s PTSD Awareness Month motto was aptly put and is something to keep in mind throughout the year: "Learn. Connect. Share. PTSD treatment can help." Connect by reaching out to someone around you. And finally, share your experiences and knowledge with others.

By Julia Ortner
Health & Disability Advocates
To learn more:

Monday, June 2, 2014

Supporting Chicago's Entrepreneurs: Marketplace Brings New Health Coverage Options

Finding the right healthcare plan can be stressful, and with all the noise surrounding the new healthcare law, it may seem downright overwhelming. But there’s good news coming out of Illinois. The state’s new health insurance marketplace is open for business, and it’s already providing small business owners and their employees with improved options for affordable coverage.

The new marketplace, Get Covered Illinois, is a partnership marketplace, which means the state and federal government run the marketplace together while Illinois prepares to run the marketplace on its own beginning in 2015. Get Covered Illinois has two branches – one for individuals, the other for small businesses. The individual marketplace is available to any self-employed individual or small business employee whose employer doesn’t offer insurance. Open enrollment for 2015 begins on November 15. In the meantime, employees and self-employed folks can use an online calculator to determine if they’re eligible for a subsidy to help cover the cost of insurance for coverage in 2015.

Many self-employed Chicagoans have already discovered the benefits of enrolling through the state’s marketplace, including Jade Phillips, a local children’s book author. After a brief stint with a precipitously high monthly premium and deductible from a private insurance company, Phillips says she spent the majority of her 20s uncovered. But this year, the self-employed entrepreneur was able to sign up for coverage through the individual market. For the first time in years, she’s enrolled in an affordable plan that allows her to continue doing what she loves while enjoying the peace of mind her new insurance brings.

There’s even more good news for small employers. The small business marketplace has year-round enrollment, so small business owners with fewer than 50 employees looking for a plan have plenty of time to determine if the new marketplace is the right choice. There are more than 230,000 small businesses in the Chicago metropolitan area, but in order for them to take advantage of this new option, entrepreneurs need to know what Get Covered Illinois’ small business marketplace can do for their businesses.

Here are some key facts about the marketplace to help get small employers up to speed.

  • The new health insurance marketplace is one of the most important components of the Affordable Care Act for Chicago small employers. The small business marketplace allows small businesses with fewer than 50 employees to band together when buying coverage – giving them the kind of purchasing clout large businesses enjoy.
  • The marketplace offers businesses more competitive choices, which can help lower premium costs, thus improving their bottom lines.
  • Small employers that do offer coverage through the marketplace may also be eligible for a tax credit of up to 50 percent of your premiums. Check out our tax credit calculator to see if you’re eligible and to receive a tax credit estimate. 
  • Illinois’ small business marketplace will offer employee choice in the future, which means small business workers will be able to choose from a number of plans from different carriers.

In order to begin the enrollment process, Chicago entrepreneurs can visit Get Covered Illinois’ site or Healthcare.gov and begin filling out a paper application, or visit contact a certified health insurance broker who can assist with the enrollment process.

What’s more, Small Business Majority’s certified educators can help answer questions regarding the enrollment process. Check out our state outreach calendar or the Small Business Health Care Consortium’s events page to find an event in your area.

To learn more about the small business marketplace, enrollment dates and coverage plans, visit our Health Coverage Guide (healthcoverageguide.org), which contains a wealth of information for small business owners regarding enrollment, the Affordable Care Act and the healthcare system in general.

The more small business owners know about the new marketplace, the easier it will be for them to get their employees and businesses more affordable insurance coverage. And then, instead of worrying about health insurance, they can do what they do best: run the companies that make up the backbone of our state and our nation. 
By Mary Timmel
 Midwest Outreach Manager
Small Business Majority