Robert Ehlert: Idaho health exchange team focused on tough task

Idaho StatesmanAugust 4, 2013 

The people stitching together the Idaho Health Insurance Exchange under the extreme pressure of an Oct. 1 deadline are as first-class and dutiful as they come.

No matter what you think about the health care reforms coming out of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the exchange staff and 19 members of the Idaho Health Insurance Exchange Board appointed by Gov. Butch Otter to make it happen here could not be more focused.

I watched them tackle an ocean of bureaucratic vagueness on their first day together back in April and was impressed. I decided to check in with their progress this week as they stare down the open enrollment deadline. By the way, that is 57 days from now — 40 days if you subtract holidays and weekends.

“Am I scared to death?” said Stephen Weeg, chairman of the exchange board, responding to a question. “No. If I was scared to death I could get paralyzed. ... The hardest thing is trying to do in five months what people in other states did in two to two-and-a-half years. ”

Building some things from scratch, sharing with other states and taking advantage of existing federal organizational templates, Weeg said he and the group stay focused imagining the finish line and how it will benefit Idahoans. Beginning Oct. 1 he sees tens of thousands signing up for health care — many for the first time in a long time.

He believes health insurance consumers will be pleasantly surprised with some of the offerings the five insurance companies (Altius, Blue Cross of Idaho, BridgeSpan, PacificSource and SelectHealth) and the exchange are able to offer.

“Families who earn $62,000 or less will qualify for subsidies,” he said. Doing some quick math, he estimated that people who earn minimum wage and have an annual income of around $15,000 will be able to purchase basic, but full coverage, for as little as $20 to $30 a month.

Designed for individual policy holders, the hope is it attracts all generations between the ages 26 to 64 — reflecting those no longer covered by parental policies and those not yet signed up for Medicare.

But there are concerns that the youthful end of the spectrum won’t be as eager to sign up.

The young are healthy, and least likely to need health care. The penalty, or tax, for not signing up for the individual mandate is minimal at first. But without youthful participation in the exchanges, the cost for the people at the older end could be higher than anticipated.

That’s why a critical part of the exchange board’s and exchange staff’s mission will be marketing, education and information.

Those efforts will be helped greatly once the Idaho exchange — which still doesn’t have name, a logo or marketing pitch — gets technology tools it doesn’t have: a website and a telephone number.

This is why I asked Weeg whether fear influenced his outlook. He has no doubt the website will come along by the end of this month and all will be well on Oct. 1 — the date certain.

Though the Obama administration decided to delay the employer mandate for a year, a spokesman from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Friday via email that “we are confident that the marketplaces will open on time, on Oct. 1 in all 50 states.”

Maybe so, but I asked Weeg whether the Idaho exchange would be better with more time.

“It’s a tough question and a good question, but right now we have 40 days to get something done,” said Weeg.

His group is so focused that he wouldn’t want to interrupt momentum with a delay. And besides, he said, “given something of this size and scope, no matter what the startup time and lead time, it would still be a major endeavor.”

In the meantime, Weeg advises health care consumers to learn as much as possible about exchanges at the federal website:

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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