State urged to craft health plan
Mar 01, 2012 (The Columbus Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Ohio's wait-and-see approach to creating a health-insurance exchange in which consumers can compare and buy policies won't give the state enough time to establish one.
"It's the law, and time is short," said Kenneth Munson, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' region that includes Ohio.
By Jan. 1, federal regulators will decide whether each state has made progress in setting up its own exchange or if the federal government will put its own model in place. The exchanges must be operating by Jan. 1, 2014, the same time President Barack Obama's health-care law requires most Americans to purchase health insurance.
Speaking at a conference in Columbus sponsored by the Health Policy Institute of Ohio, Munson urged state officials to put their own exchange in place, one that best serves Ohioans.
"It's important for states to make these decisions. It seems obvious," he said.
Some states are acting quickly to put health exchanges in place. But in Ohio and elsewhere, debate over the federal health-care law continues. Some critics are waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a challenge to the law and also the November election results, which could trigger a repeal.
Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who also heads the state Department of Insurance, which is responsible for setting up a health exchange, has been an outspoken opponent of the law.
Speaking yesterday at the same conference, Taylor said she continues to study the issue and "no decision has been made yet regarding the future of a health exchange" in Ohio.
"Let me be clear," she said. "Like many other states, we are evaluating all of our options in order to do what's best for Ohio consumers and Ohio job creators."
At the same time, Taylor blamed the Obama administration for not giving states enough direction.
"This lack of clarity and the constantly changing rules make decision-making on our part very difficult."
Taylor spoke for 15 minutes and left without taking questions.
Munson urged Taylor and others to not let the political fight over the health-care law spill onto exchanges, which have been supported by Democrats and Republicans.
"The exchange idea gets muddled in the political fight over the Affordable Care Act," he said.
Health exchanges are designed as competitive one-stop shops in which individuals and small businesses can compare and purchase health-insurance coverage. States, within federal guidelines, will decide whether they are governed by a government agency or nonprofit organization, what benefits must be included in policies and how information and assistance is made available to consumers.
Federal guidelines are expected within a few months, Munson said. The administration also will release details about the federal model that states would use in the absence of their own exchange.
Earlier this week, the administration announced that federal grants to establish state exchanges would be extended and available to states until Dec. 31, 2014. Ohio has not applied for the assistance.
"We're trying to give states more flexibility and more choices," Munson said.
The guidance Taylor seeks, he said, comes in large part by engaging with federal regulators and back-and-forth discussions.
Democrats in Ohio's General Assembly have introduced legislation to create an exchange, but it's not likely to move given opposition from majority Republicans and Gov. John Kasich's administration.
"I believe we can do it better than the federal government," said Sen. Michael Skindell, a Democrat from Lakewood who was among three lawmakers on a panel at yesterday's conference.
But Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Monclova Township, said Ohio must "take our time. We still haven't seen a federal plan. Maybe it's better. We don't really know."
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