The board of directors of Idaho’s government-run health insurance exchange met Wednesday to discuss contingency plans for the venture in light of the failures of the federal Obamacare online system that the Idaho’s website is relying upon. During the meeting the board voted unanimously to reject two website upgrade proposals presented by the exchange’s executive director, Amy Dowd, approved a third option, and voted to amend an existing website construction plan.
“We have met several needs of Idahoans,” Dowd told the board as she recapped what she believes are some of the achievements of the exchange project to date. “We have kept the federal government out of Idaho, we have retained our state sovereignty and we have retained our local control,” she said.
Dowd also noted that, while both the Idaho and federal Obamacare websites have not worked well, there have nonetheless been 4,000 calls to Idaho’s insurance exchange call center, plus 9,000 calls from Idahoans to the federal Obamacare call center.
Dowd presented the board with two options for augmenting Idaho’s website to allow what she referred to as “anonymous plan browsing,” which is the ability to shop for insurance plans without officially “enrolling” in the Obamacare system and divulging large volumes of personal data. At previous meetings several board members, including Hyatt Erstad, had complained to Dowd that the requirement that a person input personal data into the federal government web system before he or she can shop for insurance was inhibiting Idahoans from utilizing the exchange.
Dowd told the board members that there were two options to enable the anonymous plan browsing. The exchange could use an online tool within two weeks that could be acquired at no charge from the federal government, or the exchange could spend $40,000-$50,000 to have its own browsing tool created and acquire it within a 6-7 week period.
Dowd proposed that money be transferred out of the marketing and advertising budget of the exchange, and devoted to purchasing a customized anonymous browser tool. Dowd also said that the federal browsing tool would likely provide unreliable information to Idaho customers, whereas the customized browser tool would only be usable for a period of a few months, until sometime in 2014 when the state will launch what is purported to be a thoroughly state-based insurance exchange website.
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, a member of the board, objected to Dowd’s proposal to purchase a newly created browsing tool. “I don’t like waste,” he stated, “why can’t we simply use a chart on the website?”
Dowd responded that charts were already available on the exchange website, but that consumers are often confused by them.
“People will be just as confused after a browsing tool as they are now,” Rice replied. “I’m an attorney, and I write stuff, I read things for a living. When I want to figure out details on insurance plans I go to an agent. That’s what agents do and that’s why we are supposed to be working with our agents.”
Board member Kevin Settles, however, approved of Dowd’s custom browsing tool option. “I like the idea of taking money out of the advertising budget and putting it into upgrading the system,” he said. “You shouldn’t ever spend money advertising frustration anyway, and that’s what we’ve got right now, frustration.”
Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, asked if there might be a third option in dealing with the need for anonymous browsing. While addressing the other board members and Dowd, Packer, with a laptop computer in front of her, began describing her experience as she logged on to an apparent third-party privately owned website that was nonetheless aggregating Idaho insurance information. “It just asked me my age, now it’s asking if I am a smoker … now it’s allowing me to browse,” she said.
“Why can’t we use something like this?” Packer asked Dowd, suggesting that the browsing tool could be made available for “around $10,000 or so.”
Dowd noted that there would be a “conflict of interest” should the exchange seek to contract with the owner of the other website. When Packer asked “what is the conflict?” Dowd replied “we’d need to go in to executive session to discuss that.”
Board chairman Stephen Weeg then called the board into an executive session. Upon its conclusion, Weeg announced that there had been a “perceived conflict of interest, but in reality there is none” between the Idaho exchange and the owner/operator of the third party website. “It’s not a conflict, but a contractual issue,” he explained.
The board then voted unanimously to issue an additional solicitation from private contractors, known as a request for proposals (RFP), to find a third option for allowing anonymous browsing on the state’s insurance exchange website.
The board also re-visited the issues of “direct enrollment” and “direct re-enrollment,” a process whereby insurance customers can conveniently enroll in, or re-enroll after expiration, in an insurance plan directly with the insurance company of their choice, without using the government-run exchange website.
On this matter, the board spoke via teleconference with a spokesperson from Leavitt Partners, a Utah-based consulting firm that builds government health insurance exchanges. One year ago Leavitt Partners proposed to Gov. Butch Otter’s insurance exchange task force a plan to build Idaho’s exchange website for a cost of $30-$70 million.
The board concluded that allowing the direct approach for enrollment and re-enrollment would require augmentations to the current web design plans. The board thus voted to attach an addendum on a current RFP that would allow vendors to accommodate for these needed web design changes.
Weeg also told board members that the investigation of executive director Dowd’s controversial business dealings from earlier this month is under way, and should conclude within a seven-day period. The cost of the investigation, he said, would not exceed $15,000. Specifically at issue is a $375,000 no-bid contract Dowd awarded to a former board member. That contract has since been withdrawn.