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Wellmark may join health insurance marketplace in South Dakota; coverage would start in 2015

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SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — The largest private insurer in South Dakota may begin offering health insurance plans through the federal marketplace later this year for coverage that would start in January.

Residents shopping for a plan using the federal website, http://www.healthcare.gov , currently have three insurers to choose from: Avera Health Plans, Sanford Health Plan and Dakotacare. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield chose not to participate for 2014, because of concerns about the website.

"We were concerned about the customer experience for our members, that we could not guarantee the experience they've come to expect in working with Wellmark through that new channel," Wellmark spokeswoman Tracy Smith said.

The insurer, which has about 2 million members in Iowa and South Dakota, even launched a series of ads in both states late last year that poked fun at the technical glitches that plagued the website when it rolled out in October. But the company now believes the website is allowing customers to have a smooth experience when comparing and applying for plans, Smith said.

If the company chooses to offer coverage through the website, it will have to submit its plans to the state's insurance division by June 15. That office will then send the plans to federal officials for final approval.

President Barack Obama's health care law requires nearly every American to have insurance coverage. Monday is the deadline for the open enrollment period, and meeting the deadline means avoiding financial penalties on 2014 federal taxes.

The White House has said it won't push back the deadline to sign up for coverage, but if someone has already started an application, they would get extra time to finish it.

Aside from the federal enrollment website, South Dakota residents can shop for coverage directly from insurers. But those who choose that option cannot receive federal subsidies available to some with qualifying incomes under the law.

Those who miss the March 31 deadline — except under a handful of circumstances — will have to wait until November to sign up for coverage, which would start in 2015. The three insurers currently marketing to South Dakota residents through the federal website intend to participate again during that enrollment period.

"We are working to try to offer a good selection of plans to both individuals and small groups in the marketplace in 2015," said Greg Jasmer, chief marketing officer of Dakotacare.

Dakotacare, owned by the South Dakota State Medical Association, is offering 19 individual and two small group plans through the marketplace.

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