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High-risk pool's small splash



State officials anticipated Montana's new federally funded high-risk insurance pool would fill quickly. But as of July 15—two weeks after the program opened for enrollment—49 people from across the state had applied, and only 10 had been approved, according to State Auditor Monica Lindeen.

The Montana Affordable Care Plan was implemented as part of the national health care reform legislation signed by President Obama in March. Montana is slated to receive $16 million—enough to serve roughly 400 people—from federal coffers to assist people otherwise deemed uninsurable.

To qualify for the program, one must have a preexisting medical condition, be uninsured for six months and have been turned down by at least two insurance companies. Last month, Lindeen believed the 400 spots would be snatched up quickly.

"Montanans who think they will be eligible for the new program should act fast," she said. "Spots are limited and we want those most in need to get coverage."

Community health experts say the slow response might be attributed to the high-risk pool's cost. Premiums run between $190 and $615 a month, depending on a person's age. The policy carries a $2,500 annual deductible.

"That could be out of reach for some people," says Kim Mansch, director of Missoula's Partnership Health Center, which serves low-income clients on a sliding scale.

Laurie Francis, director of Community Health Partners, which operates clinics in Livingston, Bozeman and Belgrade, echoes Mansch. People with chronic illness—the pool's target population—typically occupy lower rungs on the socio-economic ladder, she says. In turn, they might not be able to stomach upwards of $200 per month for insurance coverage.

"This product is still going to be relatively unavailable for that group," Francis says.

Even so, she and Mansch both agree the pool is a step in the right direction.

"I don't want to slam it," Francis says. "I think it's exciting that we're seeing change."


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