FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear encouraged Kentuckians on Monday to start shopping for health insurance as soon as this weekend on an improved kynect.ky.gov, the insurance exchange implemented under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Speaking at a Capitol news conference, Beshear said some Kentuckians might find lower prices by shopping on Kynect during open enrollment, which begins Saturday and ends Feb. 15.
He also acknowledged that some rates would increase or stay the same, depending on a variety of factors, such as the type of plan selected, age, household income, location of residence and smoking.
"That's why we are encouraging people to shop around," Beshear said, noting that health care costs for the individual market typically increased about 8 percent or more a year before the Affordable Care Act and that there were no subsidies or discounts to help defray costs.
More than 521,000 Kentuckians enrolled in Medicaid or private health insurance through Kynect in its first year. Three of every four enrollees had no health insurance before signing up, Beshear said.
A Gallup poll this summer reported that Kentucky had the second-highest reduction of uninsured people in the country, falling from 20.4 percent in 2013 to 11.9 percent midway through this year.
Beshear, who has been praised by President Barack Obama for Kentucky's handling of the Affordable Care Act, said he expected "several thousand" more Kentuckians would sign up this year.
The changes in Kynect this year include a new mobile app, improvements to the website, more call-center representatives and a Kynect store at Fayette Mall in Lexington during the enrollment period.
The cost of the mobile app is included in the state's original contract for Kynect services, but changes to its website will cost $241,032, said Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. All the changes were paid for with federal funds, Beshear said.
The Kynect mobile app is a free download available for Apple and Android smartphones.
Through it, users may enter basic information about their address and household income to find out what kind of coverage they might qualify for, and how much of a discount or subsidy they might be able to use. The app also lists nearby insurance agents and enrollment events in the user's county.
More functions to the app might be available this fall, including the ability for users to access their Kynect accounts, see details of their plans, submit photos of documents needed for verification, and receive alerts and messages.
The Kynect website also has been improved, Beshear said.
To see available plans and the their costs, users will need only to enter basic information, such as county residence, household income and size, and whether they smoke.
More than three of every four Kentuckians will qualify for some kind of payment assistance to lower their premium costs, said Carrie Banahan, Kynect's executive director.
"Now, you'll be able to evaluate your actual costs right away," she said.
Also, Beshear said the number of certified insurance agents in the state authorized to sell Kynect health plans had doubled — from 1,400 to 2,800.
Insurance agents signed up 44 percent of all Kentuckians who bought health insurance last year.
To shorten call times and handle more calls, the number of Kynect call-center representatives has increased from 185 to 400. Call-center hours have expanded to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. The cost of additional staff has not been determined, officials said.
Beshear said seven insurance companies would offer plans through Kynect, which is two more than last year. Also, returning insurers have revised some of their offerings to allow more choices for shoppers, such as coverage at out-of-state hospitals, he said.
Policies will be available in four "metal" levels — bronze, silver, gold and platinum — with varying levels of deductibles and monthly premiums.
With all the variables, Beshear said, Kynect offers about 70,000 rates.
Household income determines the amount of any discount. A person earning up to $46,680 a year will qualify for a discount, and so will a family of four earning up to $95,400.
Keeping monthly premium costs low generally means slightly higher out-of-pocket costs (such as deductibles and co-insurance) and higher monthly premiums usually mean lower out-of-pocket costs for office visits and prescriptions.
"There's been a lot of fear-mongering about costs of health insurance after the Affordable Care Act, but it's clear that with the Kynect discounts, health insurance can be affordable for Kentuckians who need it most, many of whom were previously denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition," said state Health and Family Services Secretary Audrey Tayse Haynes.
Kentuckians who enrolled in Medicaid do not need to go back to Kynect unless household income has changed or they want to use a different Medicaid managed care organization, she said.
Beshear said the federal health care law already has improved Kentucky's overall health.
Among Medicaid recipients, Beshear said adult preventive services, such as well visits and flu shots, have increased nearly 37 percent in the state over last year. Breast cancer screenings are up 30 percent, colorectal cancer screenings have increased nearly 17 percent, and adult dental visits are up by more than a third.
He added that health care providers also have benefited.
Total Medicaid payments to providers increased 13 percent, from $5.5 billion to $6.2 billion. Hospital revenue jumped 20 percent, he said.