Marlene Caride, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Banking & Insurance (DOBI), said that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, her staff undertook various efforts to assist consumers and businesses affected by the public health crisis. This included providing relief to homeowners, people with student loans, and businesses.
At Wednesday’s Virtual Town Hall event, sponsored by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association and the State Chamber of Commerce, Caride explained that more than 175 state-chartered banks, credit unions, loan servicers, and national banks (the latter not regulated by DOBI) also worked in conjunction with the department to provide mortgage forbearance and financial protections to New Jersey customers.
Insurance companies also played a role in providing financial relief by providing payment grace periods and premium reductions on policies including life, health and auto (both personal and commercial).
The health of New Jersey residents has also been a high priority for DOBI throughout the pandemic. A major initiative the department enacted in this area was issuing guidance to health insurers that both COVID-19 testing and vaccines were to be covered with no out-of-pocket costs to consumers.
“The pandemic has shined a light on the need for quality and affordable healthcare coverage in New Jersey. Our work is more important now as we have seen job losses, which have resulted in the loss of healthcare coverage,” Caride explained.
Caride said the Nov. 1 launching of GetCoveredNJ, the state’s official health insurance marketplace, could not have been more timely. “We were able to provide people enrolling in the marketplace with state subsidies, on top of federal financial help,” she said.
More than 269,000 residents (including 75,000 new policyholders) selected plans through GetCoveredNJ, a 9.4% increase over last year’s open enrollment period when the state was on the federal health insurance exchange platform.
“One of the benefits of the state-based exchange was that 8 out of 10 individuals were able to receive additional financial help. The amount received by qualifying residents was about $484 per month. This includes a yearly savings of $564 in state subsidies per person,” Caride explained.
Net premiums were also down from more than $160 per month in the previous year to $121 per month today. “This is the lowest [rate] since the implementation of the federal marketplace and the availability of federal tax credits which began in 2014, when the average premium was $148 per month,” Caride said.
Besides the cost savings, another benefit of GetCoveredNJ is that the state has the ability to implement special enrollment periods when necessary. An important factor, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the special enrollment period has been extended to May 15.
Caride also discussed the efforts of the Health Care Affordability Interagency Workgroup and the New Jersey Health Care Affordability Advisory Group, which, when combined, include state officials and stakeholders from the healthcare and insurance fields. Caride said the Workgroup is taking a “deep dive” and will make recommendations on policies to improve healthcare accessibility and affordability.
“We will be looking into the cost drivers within the healthcare system. This way, we can set up benchmarks and policies aimed at containing costs that ultimately are paid for by residents and businesses,” Caride said.
When asked what can be done to stop the decreasing enrollment and rising costs of the state’s Small Employer Health Benefits Program over the last 10 years, Caride responded, “One of the positives about the Workgroup is that it is looking at things across the entire board. We are analyzing the small employer market to see where we can help it contain costs and maybe even increase membership.”
Touching on worker’s compensation reform bills in the Legislature – as there is a concern on increased costs and safety related to COVID-19, Caride responded, “It is important for legislators to have conversations with stakeholders to see how this affects everyone. … It is important to voice your concerns. With regards to DOBI, we look at and approve rates, but we do monitor legislation that will impact the department. I have not received any concerns from anyone in the industry about the proposed legislation.”
Asked if auto insurers will still be providing “premium givebacks” as a result of less people driving during the pandemic, Caride responded, “Given the fact that we have three different companies now producing the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel that [we] will be able to spread our wings a little bit more and not be so cooped up at home. The optimist in me wants to say 2021 is the beginning of a new lifestyle for all of us. I see more cars on the road. It will be slow getting there, but 2021 will be better than 2020.”