Feds brake, Colorado hits accelerator on health reform

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

The Obama Administration may be hitting the brakes on a key component of health reform, but Colorado is pushing the accelerator.

Colorado exchange managers have no plans to tinker with the states small business or individual health exchange.

To be honest with you, we cant undo our plan, Patty Fontneau, CEO and executive director of Colorados exchange, said during an exchange board meeting on Monday. To not offer choice would cripple us.

The Obama Administration last week postponed for one year the requirement that businesses with more than 50 employees provide health insurance across-the-board or face stiff fines. Colorados small business exchange will serve businesses with fewer than 50 employees who are not required to provide health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Colorado is one of 16 states building its own health exchange. Known as Connect for Health Colorado, it is slated to open on Oct. 1. The exchange aims to help individuals and small business owners shop for health insurance and learn if they qualify for public health insurance or tax rebates to help pay for private insurance.

Fontneau contended that the new federal ruling wont affect Colorado.

Its over 50 employees. Its the large market, she said. Its a technicality. Its got nothing to do with us.

Whats kind of ironic is that right now, if they said, Stop, that doesnt make it easier for us. It makes it harder. Were so far down the path. To undo (our plans) would actually be harder, Fontneau said.

Its unclear, however, whether the change at the federal level will funnel more customers to the exchange or whether both individuals and big businesses will sit out the first year.

Board member Steve ErkenBrack wants managers to make it clear that Colorado is implementing the Affordable Care Act in its own way. ErkenBrack thinks most people believe that reform will happen uniformly across the country.

I dont have a whole lot of confidence that we wont have other decisions from Washington, said ErkenBrack, president of Rocky Mountain Health Plans. Were marching in a different direction.

Exchange board member Richard Betts, a business owner from Telluride, urged exchange managers to capitalize on the change from the feds.

Betts said he gets three to four calls a day from fellow business owners confused about what they should do to comply with health reform. He said exchange managers should make a strong push to business owners, especially those in the food service industry who typically have more than 50 employees.

Thats a whole huge market of individuals who are now going to become our target market for next year, Betts said. You want to reach out to people who are conduits to employees.

Indeed Myung Oak Kim, communications and outreach director for the exchange, said that the exchanges research shows that the typical customers will be young white men working on the food service or entertainment industry.

Were fully aware of that population and will market to them aggressively, Kim said.

So far Kim said the advertising agency that Connect for Health is using claims that 30-second spots introducing the exchange have been seen about 11 million times across the state.

That doesnt mean, however, that people now understand what the exchange will do.

Exchange board member Mike Fallon wants much more aggressive advertising telling customers that they must buy health insurance.

Are we missing our target market? Fallon asked.

I think were missing a big piece of the group that we need to attract. The new law says that you have to buy insurance or face a fine, Fallon said.

It tested poorly, Kim replied.

This is a law that says we have to buy insurance. It tested poorly because its distasteful, but the law is distasteful, Fallon said.

Not to everybody, said board member Arnold Salazar.

Fallon said that the exchange is busy trying to act like a free market entity when in fact, managers should be pointing out that people must act.

Were spending a lot of money now and missing that opportunity, he said.

Fontneau pointed out that the first round of ads aims to introduce Connect for Health while a call to action will come later this summer.

Board member Eric Grossman urged exchange managers to take advantage of business managers who are thinking about health insurance now.

Renewal season is in effect right now, said Grossman, vice president of strategy and government affairs for the technology company, TriZetto. Most people are shopping now.

In one respect, the new ruling makes the Oct. 1 launch easier for the IT gurus at Connect for Health. Adele Work, project manager for the exchange, said her team has been struggling with reporting requirements if people come to the exchange and say they work for a large employer who is failing to provide health insurance.

Exchange managers must rely on what customers tell them.

They may think they work for McDonalds (a large company) when they actually work for a small franchise, Work said.

Two new board members joined the exchange this week. They are Ellen Daehnick, founder of Helliemaes Handcrafted Caramels in Lakewood, and Sharon Lee OHara, executive vice president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Societys Colorado-Wyoming chapter. Daehnick is eager to convey the needs of small business owners while OHara has extensive knowledge of chronic diseases. She said as many as one in four Coloradans would say that they live with a chronic disease.

The board makeup will shift now that two insurance industry executives have finished their terms. They are Robert Ruiz-Moss of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Beth Sobert, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Colorado.