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On the Hot Seat

Health Connector adds plans, updates options

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Created by the Massachusetts health care overhaul in 2006, the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority — better known as the Health Connector — was the first state online health insurance marketplace. Other states are now building their own health insurance exchanges under the more recent federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Jean Yang, 41, who became the Health Connector’s executive director in January, is preparing for “Connector 2.0,” with more plan choices and an easier-to-use shopping experience. She spoke with Globe reporter Robert Weisman on a visit to the newspaper last week.

Are you still in this year’s open enrollment period? How is that going?

Yes, we are indeed in the open enrollment period in the nongroup [individual] market. It started on July 1 and will go through Aug. 15. It is going very well. We are welcoming new members into the program. This is an opportunity for them to either select health insurance for the first time or reevaluate their options [and] look for opportunities to save.

What is the current percentage of insured residents in Massachusetts? Have the Connector’s insurance programs, Commonwealth Choice and Commonwealth Care, been gaining members?

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About 97 percent of the residents in Massachusetts are insured. It is certainly the highest percentage in the nation. When we started the reform in 2006, we were at 92 percent. So the state did successfully bring around 400,000 people into coverage. The Health Connector covers 250,000 of them, so we were a big part of the effort. We are at an all-time high right now.

Are any new health plans signing on this year?

We did have a new health plan that joined Commonwealth Choice in January — that’s Network Health — so we currently have nine carriers. Going into 2014, we potentially expect another new carrier, Minuteman. So we will potentially have 10 of them. That’s the medical carriers. We also anticipate up to five dental carriers. We will be offering dental coverage for the first time in 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act implementation.

Do you see prices coming down as the Connector’s programs move forward? A lot of people still complain health insurance takes up too much of their income.

The vision of the Connector is to provide a marketplace where consumers will be choosing their health insurance options and then look for savings opportunities. We believe that this dynamic is going to promote competition and also encourage more options to become available. So I don’t necessarily think that the Connector per se is going to just lower prices by way of a mechanism. But the idea is to promote a more efficient and more competitive market. That’s on the premium pricing front. There’s also subsidies that will be available to some shoppers. Some of our current members have access to subsidies that will help them pay for insurance. And that will continue in 2014 because that is also part of the ACA [Affordable Care Act] design.

How will the ACA, the national health care overhaul, affect the Connector?

It really strengthens the Health Connector in a number of ways. As I mentioned, a very important part of what we do is to offer subsidies to a certain part of the population to help them pay for health insurance. The ACA expands that opportunity, so there will be more people able to access subsidies through the exchange. For example, low-income workers who currently have access to employer insurance but are unable to afford it will be eligible for subsidies. The ACA also makes major investments into the exchange so we can update our technology. Our goal is to offer a significantly better user experience, an easy-to-navigate process.

Do you expect the other state exchanges will follow the Massachusetts model?

Different states are exploring different options. Different states have slightly different situations and priorities. But at the same time, the ACA concept is very similar to the Massachusetts model, and the major architecture is the same. So you will see the core model applied pretty consistently across different states.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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