Pinal County dodges health care void as Blue Cross steps in to offer ‘Obamacare’ coverage

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona plans to expand its Affordable Care Act plan coverage to Pinal County. About 10,000 people who signed up for health insurance last year will now have the ability to purchase an ACA health plan this year, according to the company. (Photo by Alejandra Armstrong/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona announced Wednesday that it will remain in the Pinal County Affordable Care Act health exchange.

Pinal County had faced the possibility of becoming the only U.S. county without an “Obamacare” option in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield had planned to pull out of the county at the end of year.

Aetna planned to provide coverage in Pinal County starting in 2017, but it announced on Aug. 15 that it would scale back its participation in the exchange nationwide because of financial losses, leaving a void in Pinal County.

If Blue Cross Blue Shield did not step up, nearly 10,000 county residents would have been left without an affordable health care option. According to a statement, Blue Cross Blue Shield will be the sole marketplace provider in 13 Arizona counties. The company still needs to obtain regulatory approval for the move, according to a company statement.

Before the Phoenix-based insurer’s announcement, some county residents said they were concerned.

“A lot of people my age may have to move elsewhere for affordable coverage,” said Paola Vargas, 20, a student at Central Arizona College in Coolidge.

Cynthia Cox, of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said Pinal County’s situation was unique.

“This is the first time a county would be left without an option in the exchange,” she said.

If no insurer filled the void “people would have to pay full price from an insurance company, if available. It’s more likely that they would go without coverage,” she said.

Although this predicament was avoided, the majority of Arizonans are left in the precarious position of having only one provider in their exchange. With Phoenix Health Plan Inc.’s recent decision to vacate Maricopa County at the end of the year, Cigna will be the only option for the state’s largest county and its nearly 130,000 marketplace enrollees, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Blue Cross Blue Shield Arizona’s President and CEO Rich Boals said he doesn’t think Arizona counties are completely out of the woods yet.

“Regulators and policymakers must find a way to stabilize the market and put long-term fixes in place. In the meantime, BCBSAZ is trying hard to balance the company’s financial losses from the ACA with the very real concerns of Arizonans,” Boals said in a statement.