Gov. Butch Otter’s state-based health insurance exchange is turning to the federal government for assistance, as the board of directors seeks to meet an Oct. 1 start-up deadline. According to the exchange’s chairman of the board, Stephen Weeg, deferring to the federal government for technical infrastructure and data collection services will last for only one year.
“The earnest debate that characterized the Idaho Legislature’s March approval of legislation creating the Idaho Health Insurance Exchange has shifted to intense preparation for meeting a critical deadline in early October,” Otter, along with Weeg, announced in a joint statement Thursday from the governor’s office. “The Obama administration will impose a federal exchange in Idaho unless we have ours operating by October. Meeting the deadline will require us to move quickly and act creatively.”
Reports of Idaho turning to the federal government for help with its state-based exchange emerged Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, which noted that the Idaho exchange will cede the enrollment and eligibility portions of its operations to federal control. According to the Journal, Idahoans will still be able to log on to an Idaho-specific website to shop for insurance plans, but behind the scenes federal computers will examine enrollment data and determine people’s eligibility for federal insurance subsidies.
“The plan is to temporarily use federal government services to get the exchange up and running,” Weeg told IdahoReporter.com. “I think all this flows through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but to be honest, I’m not an IT (information technology) guy, and I don’t know exactly where all the information goes. We had to do this to meet the Oct. 1 deadline of having the exchange operational, and so we can maintain primacy over our own state exchange. If we were to miss the deadline and default to a federal exchange, Idaho would lose control over its state-based exchange.”
The joint statement issued by Otter and Weeg does not make mention of HHS’s involvement in the state insurance exchange. It does note, however, that implementing the exchange “requires moving quickly (and) creatively” and states that “the Exchange Board’s fast-track mission has been to create an online health insurance marketplace designed, driven and controlled by Idahoans to help our fellow citizens research and obtain affordable coverage that’s right for them.”
Earlier this year, several of the state legislators who voted in favor of Otter’s insurance exchange plan argued that the creation of a state-based exchange would shield Idahoans from federal government involvement in their health care.
For example, Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell, said on March 18 that Idaho needed the state-based exchange because, without it, the state would have a federal insurance exchange forced upon it, in which case Idahoans would “cede every bit of control that we have over to an insolvent government (the federal government) that I firmly believe does not have the best interests of Idaho citizens in mind.”
When IdahoReporter.com contacted Hixon Thursday, he responded that he was unaware of the federal involvement with the state-based exchange and declined to comment until he could learn more.
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, told IdahoReporter.com that “I’d prefer that a state-based insurance exchange would be up and running by Oct. 1, and that the federal government’s involvement would not be necessary, but the timing of the issue has prevented that.”
Burgoyne added that “Idahoans want and expect a state-based exchange in the long run. If the federal government is seeking to take over, or if the exchange board has changed course, that will be unacceptable.”
Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, told IdahoReporter.com that “I would be disappointed if we allowed the feds to come in and provide any management or assistance of our Idaho insurance exchange,” while Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, noted that “the purpose of a state-managed exchange is to allow Idaho to maintain maximum state control over the process. To the extent that this is lessened or temporarily deferred, I'd like to get more information. I do, however, have great confidence in Stephen Weeg.” Both Youngblood and Anderson voted in favor of the insurance exchange.
IdahoReporter.com asked several officials involved with the state-based insurance exchange if deferring to the federal government was legally acceptable within the parameters of the state insurance exchange law itself.
“It certainly should be,” Burgoyne, who is an attorney, said. “But that is a question that should be directed to the executive director of the exchange.”
Weeg, on the other hand, did not comment on the legality of these developments with the state-based insurance exchange, telling IdahoReporter.com that the exchange board has not asked the attorney general’s office for a formal legal opinion.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, also an attorney, said the federal involvement “isn’t ideal. But I remain grateful to HHS for providing this short-term solution to us. This will allow Idaho to remain in control of our own insurance choices.”
IdahoReporter.Com contacted the attorney general’s office to seek comment. “We do not discuss issues pertaining to the insurance exchange,” Kris Blivens Cloyd, spokesperson for the office noted. “I suggest you contact the governor about this.”
However, on May 21 Brian Kane, deputy attorney general, spoke at length with IdahoReporter.com on another matter pertaining to both the state insurance exchange law and the Idaho Constitution.
IdahoReporter.com also attempted to contact Michael Stoddard, an attorney with the Hawley Troxell law firm, serving as legal counsel to the insurance exchange, for clarification on the legality of federal involvement in the exchange. Calls to Stoddard’s office were not returned.