Lawrence call center expected to add positions to handle insurance exchange calls.
Four states that have snubbed the federal health law by defaulting to the federal government to build new online insurance marketplaces and not agreeing to expand Medicaid are getting new jobs at call centers that will help consumers understand their new coverage options this fall. Kansas is one of the four states.
Up to 9,000 jobs are expected to be created at call centers to support the new federally run marketplaces. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said some of them will be added to existing Medicare call centers in Phoenix, Chester, Va., Lawrence, Kan., and Tampa, Fla. — all states with Republican leaders who oppose the law.
A fifth center in Coralville, Iowa and a sixth in Corbin, Ky., will also be expanded, she said. Plans are still being finalized for other locations, she said.
Of those states, only Kentucky is setting up its own online insurance marketplace that will help people shop for individual or small employer coverage. Iowa, will run its exchange in partnership with the federal government. The other states are relying entirely on the federal government.
Of the six states getting call centers, only Kentucky has committed to expanding Medicaid in 2014, even though governors in Florida and Arizona say they support it. So far, 22 states have agreed to expand Medicaid.
The jobs are through Vangent, a General Dynamics Information Technology subsidiary, which was awarded a $530 million one-year contract by the federal government to set up call centers to answer inquiries related to the insurance marketplaces in 34 states where they will be run in whole or part by the federal government.
The government estimates that next October, when the marketplaces go live, the call centers will be open seven days of the week, 24 hours a day, handling 6.1 million phone calls and 23,000 e-mails. The contract could be renewed for up to nine more years, making it potentially worth more than $5 billion.
States running their own marketplaces will have their own call centers.
The marketplaces are expected to expand health coverage to about 27 million people by 2016. Under the federal contract awarded to Fairfax, Va.-based Vangent, the company will also field inquiries about Medicare, Medicare Advantage and “other relevant programs,” the award announcement stated.
With the filing deadline approaching, the nation’s largest tax preparation company is letting its customers know how they are likely to be affected by the Affordable Care Act.
“After the ACA was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011, we did some focus groups and some surveys to try and measure the public’s understanding of what all is in the ACA,” said Meg Sutton, senior advisor for tax and health care services at H&R Block. “It became pretty clear that there needed to be a process for educating our clients.”
Sutton called the 2010 federal health reform law the “biggest tax-code change in the past 20 years.”
The company’s tax preparers, she said, have been calling their customers’ attention to the ACA’s penalties for not having health insurance and to the subsidies that will be available to low- and modest-income families.
The information also is available on an H&R Block website.
“Client reaction has been very positive,” Sutton said.
The company’s surveys, she said, had found that 77 percent of its clientele didn’t realize their 2013 tax returns would be used to determine their eligibility for health insurance subsidies and that 44 percent of those between ages 18 and 34 were unaware of the penalties for being uninsured.
Sutton said the company’s tax preparers do not tell their customers to buy - or not to buy – health insurance. Instead, she said, customers are “informed of their options” based on the information in their 2013 tax returns.
The ACA’s mandate that almost all Americans either have health insurance or pay a penalty takes effect Jan. 1, 2014.
Marvin Lawton has been a tax preparer at the H&R Block office in Topeka for the past eight years.
“I’ve found there to be quite a cross section in the way people react – all the way from being OK with it to being dismayed by it,” he said. “Some are OK with it because they already have insurance and won’t be affected by it, some are bewildered over how they’re going to afford it and some wonder why they have to pay a penalty if everybody in their family is healthy."
Most of his customers with little or no health insurance have seemed pleased to hear about the subsidies, he said.
“I’ve had a lot of people who used to have insurance through their job but ended up getting laid off in the past year,” he said. “They know how expensive health insurance is. So when I tell them about penalties, they say ‘But I can’t afford it.’ Then, when I tell them about the subsidies and how they’ll be able to buy it through the exchange and be part of a larger pool, they’re OK with it. They say they’re OK with it if it’s affordable. And I say that’s the intent, that’s why it’s called the Affordable Care Act.”
H&R Block customers have the option of signing up for email alerts on changes in the new health reform law.
Sutton said, H&R Block appears to be the only national tax preparation firm helping its customers predict the law’s effect on their 2014 taxes.
Surveys have shown that about 60 percent of the nation’s taxpayers use tax preparation companies. H&R Block accounts for almost 20 percent of the tax-preparation market.
Kansas Health Consumer Coalition Executive Director Anna Lambertson said she welcomed the company’s initiative.
“I think it’s great,” Lambertson said. “I give them high marks.”
The coalition, she said, has been looking for ways to launch a similar informational campaign in Kansas.
“We can’t do it alone,” she said. “And H&R Block can’t do it alone. It’s going to take everybody getting involved.”
Sheldon Weisgrau, a spokesman for the Health Reform Resource Project, also praised the company.
“I assume they’re hoping this will lead to more people coming to them to have their taxes done,” he said. “But that’s fine. Anytime you’ve got someone providing accurate information it’s a positive.
Weisgrau said federal officials have announced plans for launching a major outreach campaign in June.
“They don’t want to start too early, which makes sense,” he said. “The exchange won’t be up and running until October.”
Mary McBain, chief executive of the Kansas Society of Certified Public Accountants CEO said the H&R Block initiative had not gone unnoticed.
“The major accounting firms have definitely been ramping up for this,” she said. “Some of the bigger firms have hired people just to work on ACA – that’s all they do.”
MacBain said her organization was committed to providing its members with accurate information about the law.
“All of us, I think, need to take a deep breath and not get caught up in all the emotion that’s comes with health care reform,” she said. “We need to be informed because, frankly, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
→ Find more information on health insurance exchanges and other health reform topics at khi.org/healthreform.
After months of trying to dance around the politically charged issue, the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback has openly acknowledged that the $139 million Medicaid enrollment system that it is building will be interconnected with the online health insurance exchange required by the Affordable Care Act, and that the system will be ready to go by the Oct. 1 federal deadline.
“It's just a connectivity kind of a thing,” said Dr. Robert Moser, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which is spearheading the project to overhaul the 26-year-old, paper-based system to a modern online one.
“I certainly appreciate the concerns that are tied to the political angst, but this program was well on its way when I came on board and my job is to make sure it gets completed successfully,” he said.
Entangled with the exchange
Overhauling the state’s antiquated Medicaid enrollment system has been in the works since at least 2009, when the project was called K-MED.
The project stalled briefly in August 2011, when Brownback returned a $31.5 million federal grant, most of which had been earmarked for developing the state’s new Medicaid enrollment system. Brownback said he was returning the grant because it was tied to the Affordable Care Act — which he he had pledged he would not implement prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the law, and later until after the 2012 federal elections.
Then that same month, administration officials announced a new contract with Accenture to develop the Kansas Eligibility and Enforcement System (KEES), using $118 million in federal funds to pay for the $139 million projected cost. K-MED became KEES.
A key condition of the federal funding was that the KEES system would have to be “interoperable” with the coming health insurance exchange — an online marketplace scheduled to launch Oct. 1 where consumers can compare and buy coverage that will begin Jan. 1, 2014.
In Kansas and the 25 other states that elected not to run their own health insurance exchanges, the federal government will build and operate them.
Moser said interoperability of KEES and the exchange means that — for consumers — there will be a single entry point for enrolling in private health insurance or in Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for low-income, elderly and disabled persons. Medicaid in Kansas is known as KanCare.
“You enter in some information, most of it is going to be yes/no. If you're eligible for Medicaid then it would pop up the KEES patient portal,” Moser said. “If it shows that your income level is such that you don't qualify for Medicaid…it's going to push your information over to the federal exchange. So those two systems literally will be handing back and forth inquiries.”
Moser said the fact KEES would interface with the insurance exchange was no different than integration with other federal computer systems, such as Homeland Security or the Internal Revenue Service.
“It doesn't really have that significant of an implication in my mind. But then again, I'm a physician and a little bit more patient-centered and look at the convenience factor. If that person is in a hospital setting and I think they need admitted, but they're worried about the cost because they don't have coverage, I'd like to be able to determine at that point in time 'Are they eligible for coverage' and use that as leverage to get them in to the hospital,” Moser said.
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said today that she wants to meet this week with Gov. Sam Brownback about how to move forward with implementation of the federal health reform law.
Specifically, Praeger said she wants to talk to Brownback about the state partnering with the federal government on a health insurance purchasing exchange. Kansas no longer has the option of designing its own online insurance marketplace but it can still partner on one with federal officials, if it acts quickly, she said.
Praeger said partnering with the federal government on an exchange would allow the state to maintain its authority to review and license insurance plans.
Praeger, a moderate Republican who supports the reform law, said she must let federal officials know by Friday, Nov. 16 whether the state intends to partner on an exchange. But she said she needs the governor’s blessing on that and a grant application her department has prepared, which must be submitted by Thursday, Nov. 15.
“The governor needs to agree that he won’t oppose us applying for the grant,” Praeger said. “He doesn’t have to give tacit approval necessarily, but just indicate it’s OK if we want to move forward on this.”
Brownback, a conservative Republican, voted against the Affordable Care Act as a member of the U.S. Senate and as governor has tried to block its implementation pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the law and then later the outcome of the presidential race.
Brownback in August 2011 rejected a $31.5 million federal grant intended to help Kansas develop an exchange as part of a program to develop models for other states to use.
Praeger said President Obama’s re-election means that the reform law won’t be repealed. It also means that states that have been slow to act will have to play catch up to meet approaching implementation deadlines.
Under the law, each state is to have an exchange operational by Jan. 2014.
“It’s time to stop resisting,” Praeger said.
The board responsible for overseeing the digital exchange of Kansans' health records today unanimously approved transferring its duties to a state agency within a year, provided the Legislature acts to make the transfer legal.
If the Legislature amends the law, as is now expected, the functions of the Kansas Health Information Exchange would be transferred to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment by October 2013. Under the transition plan drafted by KDHE, the 17-member KHIE board currently appointed by the governor would become an advisory committee appointed by the KDHE secretary.
The goal of transferring the authority to KDHE is to reduce costs. Operating the board was expected to cost about $400,000 a year as an independent entity versus about $54,000 a year if the board's regulatory functions are assumed by the state.
The decision came at the same time that health information exchange is beginning in Kansas.
"This is a way to get the state to have some skin in the game. Right now the only people who have skin in the game are (medical) providers," said board member Jerry Slaughter, who also is executive director of the Kansas Medical Society.
Leading up to the decision, some board members and others had expressed concern that a state agency wouldn't represent the interests of patients or health care providers as well as an independent board would do so.
Related story: Kansas breaks ground on statewide digital health network
State insurance regulators are preparing a recommendation for Gov. Sam Brownback on what basic benefits should be available to Kansans who seek health insurance through the new online purchasing exchange that federal officials expect to be operational here within about 16 months.
A three-hour hearing to collect public input on what should constitute the state’s “essential health benefits” benchmark plan is scheduled for Wednesday. It is set to start at 9 a.m. in Shawnee Room A at the Maner Conference Center, which is next to the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka.
“Our plan is to get some summary information (including a recommendation) over to the governor within a week or so after the hearing is over, and at that point it will be up to him to decide if he wants to make an election,” said Linda Sheppard, director of the accident and health division at the Kansas Insurance Department. Sheppard also is the agency’s project manager for matters dealing with implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the controversial federal health reform law that Brownback has pledged to have no part of until after the November presidential election.
Brownback, like other conservative Republicans, opposed the Affordable Care Act, first as a U.S. senator and then when he campaigned for governor in 2010. In August 2011, under pressure from GOP party activists, he spurned a $31.5 million federal “innovator” grant to Kansas to help the state create a health insurance exchange model for use here and possibly in other states.
He then said his administration would have nothing to do with “Obamacare” until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the reform’s constitutionality. After the court largely upheld the law in June, he said he would do nothing to implement it until after the election.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and most Republicans running for Congress have vowed to repeal the law as a first order of business, if elected. In Kansas, conservative Republicans continued to use the reform law to bludgeon more moderate opponents in the party’s August primaries and were mostly successful with the tactic.
Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger is a moderate Republican who helped craft portions of the Affordable Care Act as part of her work on behalf of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. She has consistently said that the law has shortcomings but allows flexibility to states in how it is implemented in some areas, and that Kansas should exercise those options in order to have programs more in tune with the state’s needs and desires.
The health reform law stipulates that the federal government will run the insurance exchanges in states that choose not to create their own and will have them up and running by Jan. 1, 2014. Likewise, in states where governors decline to choose the models for “essential benefits” offered through the exchanges, the federal government will do so.
Sheppard said if the federal government chooses the benchmark plan for Kansas, it could be one that is less affordable than a plan selected by those more familiar with the Kansas market.
Spokesmen for Brownback this week said they were unable to say whether the governor would pass on making a recommendation regarding essential benefits as he did on returning the exchange grant.
According to Sheppard, federal officials have set a Sept. 30 deadline for hearing from governors on their benchmark plan choices.
After nearly four hours of discussion Wednesday, the board responsible for regulating digital health information exchange in Kansas postponed its vote on a proposal to dissolve and turn its regulatory authority over to a state agency.
Instead, members of the Kansas Health Information Exchange board decided to form a committee to develop a list of the dissolution proposal's pros and cons and return with a recommendation for the board to consider at its Sept. 12 meeting.
In Kansas, privately owned networks handle the transfer of patients' digital health records over a health information exchange — which went live last week. The KHIE board was set up in 2010 as a public-private regulatory body to be independent of political influence.
The proposal to fold KHIE's functions into the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would eliminate more than half of KHIE's $400,000 projected annual costs and transfer the rest to taxpayers. Under the proposal, the 17-member KHIE board currently appointed by the governor would become an advisory committee appointed by the KDHE secretary.
"I feel like we haven't fully vetted and understand the long-term implications of making this transition," said board member Karen Braman.
"I absolutely agree that we have to look at efficiencies in operations wherever we can. That's going on in every sector, every business, every household in the country right now. And I do think we have to capitalize on the synergies that can be gained in collaboration with KDHE. I think that's been one of the cornerstones of this public-private partnership that we've all been involved in for so long," Braman said.
Board member Jackie John of the Great Plains Health Alliance asked what assurance there would be that KDHE would continue to ensure the privacy and security of patient health information.
"When the state goes through their budgeting process, how do we know that there's going to be enough value, that this process is going to continue with the resources necessary to provide the quality of services we're committed to?" John said.
"At least until a change in administration, there's a commitment to do this. But I'm not going to sit here and say that we can guarantee things for all eternity — that's just not realistic," said Aaron Dunkel, deputy secretary at KDHE. "At least with this administration, which we're hoping will be a little bit longer, we've got a commitment."
In the wake of today's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Kansas could still avoid ceding total control of its health insurance exchange to the federal government if it moves quickly, Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said.
“That’s probably the best-case scenario now from an exchange standpoint,” Praeger said.
But that would require a meeting of the minds between Praeger and Gov. Sam Brownback and meeting a mid-November deadline for alerting federal officials to the state's intentions.
Last year, Brownback returned a $31.5 million federal grant that would have helped the state develop its own exchange. And today, after the court's decision, the governor vowed he would do nothing to implement the Affordable Care Act's provisions until after the November elections.
“Stopping ObamaCare is now in the hands of the American people," Brownback said. "It begins with electing a new president this fall.”
Opposition from Brownback and Republican legislative leaders resulted in Kansas missing deadlines for establishing its own exchange. Under the federal law, each state must have an operational exchange by Jan. 1, 2014, with plans for it certified by Jan. 1, 2013. States that choose not to implement an exchange on their own would cede that authority to federal officials.
Kansas missed the cutoff for developing its own exchange but could still partner with the federal government on one, an arrangement that Praeger said would allow state officials to set rules for insurance company participation in the online marketplace and direct consumer assistance efforts.
“Plan management and consumer assistance are two functions that our industry and our agent community are most concerned about. So, I think they would like us to retain control,” Praeger said.
Praeger said federal officials have told her that she doesn’t need explicit authorization from Brownback to proceed. She could sign the letter declaring the state’s intention to partner with the federal government on an exchange.
Despite those assurances, Praeger, a moderate Republican who supports the health reform law, said she doesn’t want to circumvent Brownback, a conservative Republican who continues to fight the law.
“Even if I’m allowed to sign the letter, I’m not going to do that unless the governor at least agrees they won’t try to block our efforts,” Praeger said. “After the dust settles, I think we (Praeger and Brownback) will have a conversation and we’ll sort through all of the issues.”
As outlined in the Affordable Care Act, individuals, small-business owners and people whose incomes qualify them for federal subsidies and tax credits would shop for policies using the exchange websites that would help the shoppers sort through coverage and price options. The exchange also could be used to determine eligibility for the Medicaid program, eligibility for which would be expanded under the law where states choose to do so.
→ More in-depth coverage of the Supreme Court's ruling on health reform and its implications for Kansas at khi.org/aca-ruling.
Jennifer Brull’s father needed urgent medical attention.
Brull, herself a physician, was helping him collect everything he needed, including his most recent laboratory and scan results. Then she learned that one set of her father’s X-rays were at a hospital four hours away.
"We had to drive to pick them up," she said, recalling the incident, which occurred earlier this spring. "It was a real pain in the butt. You know, it's during a stressful time and we were dealing with a bunch of other things. This was just one more thing that we have to deal with, something that should have been easy. There's no reason in this day and age that we shouldn't have been able to accomplish that electronically.”
Dr. Jennifer Brull, who practices family medicine in Plainville, is a national leader in adopting electronic health records.
It isn’t the technology itself that is the barrier to more medical providers exchanging electronic records, she said, but the lack of a secure network to transmit them without risking patient privacy.
"We said, 'Just email it — it's fine, we'll sign a waiver.' They said they just couldn't do it," Brull recalled of the hospital’s refusal to transmit her father’s X-ray records and spare the family the long drive.
Developers of a new statewide digital health records exchange say the needed secure network is coming to Kansas this summer. They call it a groundbreaking event that is expected to improve patient care and help cut medical costs by avoiding redundant and ineffective treatments. It’s also expected to reduce errors.
The statewide health information exchange is scheduled to go live July 1, allowing medical providers registered with the network to share and search for patient records.
Dr. Robert Moser, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the exchange would safeguard patient privacy.
"We can assure patients that this information will be secure and safe and only available to those providers that need it, and at the time they need it," he said.
Patient information available on the network at first will be limited to demographics, medications, allergies, lab results and medical history, including diagnoses, procedures, surgeries and immunizations. But officials at the Kansas Health Information Exchange Inc. predict the system will grow to include more kinds of information, such as a doctor's notes or dictation recordings.
Substance abuse data will not be available on the network unless explicitly authorized by a patient.
About a third of Kansas patients receive care from a provider who is or will be connected to the exchange in the near future, officials said.
Benefits of exchange
As it is more widely adopted, health information exchange, or HIE, will take the place of paper records, which are typically transferred via fax, discs, mail or by patients themselves. And quicker access to more complete patient information should translate into benefits for patients.
"Right now we wait sometimes a month or more to get records," Brull said. "That time delay certainly impacts how you provide care to that patient."
She said the current paper system relies heavily on the patient to relay information from one care provider to the next. But too often patients don't know exactly what was done or learned by another provider.
"If you know real information, you're a lot less likely to order another test," Brull said. "That's what the free exchange of information gets you — you've helped the patient and eliminated costs."
Less paperwork also will mean less administrative cost, she said.
"I hope people look back 20 years from now or 50 years from now and say, ‘This was when health care in the United States changed. There's way less cost and better health care,’" Brull said.
→ Continue reading about health information exchange at khi.org/HIE — including information about network security and privacy concerns that patients need to know.
New privacy notices
Starting June 1, patients of Kansas health care providers who are connected to the new statewide network will receive privacy notices telling them that their health records may be shared electronically, under the same legal protection that currently applies to their paper-based health records. Those who don’t want their records to be available on the network must mail in an "opt-out" form, which is available at the website KHIE.org.