Kansas is among the states where federal officials will run the new health insurance exchange but the state’s top insurance regulators said they hope to inject a local flavor.
Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said her agency has been in discussion with the feds about having some of the more complex calls to the exchange’s toll-free helpline roll over to her department so that Kansas consumers come in touch quickly with local people more familiar with the Kansas insurance plans offered in the exchange and the governing regulations.
“We’re discussing how we can make a quick, relatively seamless transfer,” of appropriate calls to the Kansas Insurance Department, Praeger told KHI News Service.
“Our expectation is if you call the 800 number and if you have really simple questions like ‘I don't think I have the proper web address for the exchange or my password isn't working,’ a very operational question, they would handle it,” said Linda Sheppard, the insurance department’s director of health care policy and analysis. “But if it’s questions specifically related to anyone's benefits or coverage, those would be forwarded to us.”
The department already routinely fields calls from consumers with complaints about denials of insurance claims or delays in processing, so it only makes sense to carry that practice forward with implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Praeger said.
The exchange or marketplace is scheduled to be operational in each state by Oct. 1 with coverage purchased through the exchange effective Jan. 1.
'Hiccups along the way'
Some Republican officials have questioned whether the exchanges will be up and running by Oct. 1. Praeger, who has been generally supportive of the new law, is not among them. But she predicted it wouldn’t be a smooth start.
“Oh, I think they'll be up and running,” she said. “There will be some hiccups along the way. That's putting it mildly, especially if you look at how the Medicare prescription drug program rolled out in the Bush administration and this is much more complicated.”
→ Related story: Kansas insurers gearing up to market new plans on exchange
Like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Bob Laszewski is a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act.
Despite that, the Washington, D.C. consultant said at a meeting here today that Brownback is making a mistake by refusing to partner with the federal government to run the Kansas health insurance purchasing exchange that the law requires to be operational by 2014.
“Do the partnership. That is a no-brainer,” Laszewski said to about 100 legislators, lobbyists and health care providers at a meeting sponsored by the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the KHI News Service.
Laszewski, whose client list consists mostly of health insurance companies, said it’s time for opponents of the law to stop fighting it and start doing what they can to ensure that it is implemented in a way that does the least harm to the industry and consumers. One way to do that, he said, would be to implement exchanges – new online marketplaces – that encourage competition among insurance companies rather than rely on regulations to moderate increases in premiums.
“Putting the insurance exchange up doesn’t mean you support the thing (the reform law), it means you are trying to minimize the damage,” Laszewski said, predicting that premiums in the individual and small-group markets would go up no matter who runs the exchanges.
Brownback last year blocked Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger’s attempts to establish a state-operated exchange, returning a $31.5 million federal grant in the process. Last month, the governor told Praeger, who also is a Republican, that he would not support her efforts to partner with the federal government to operate and fund the Kansas exchange.
“Kansans feel Obamacare is an overreach by Washington and have rejected the state’s participation in this federal program," Brownback said, explaining his decision.
Praeger, who also spoke at the KHI meeting, said she would try once more before a Feb. 15 federal deadline to convince the governor and legislators that partnering on an exchange would be better than allowing the federal government to run it. Federal officials recently extended the deadline in an effort to accommodate states where governors had opposed or held out on state participation pending the outcome of the November national elections.
“There is still some opportunity for us to retain some control,” Praeger said. “Our department looks forward to working with the Legislature and the governor to see if that still is an option. The decision really rests with them.”
Praeger said partnering with the federal government would allow her department to retain authority to approve the plans marketed in the exchange and manage consumer protection efforts. She said it might also prevent federal officials from over-regulating the exchange.
The ACA calls on states to expand Medicaid eligibility to include adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $30,660 a year for a family of four. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year that upheld the law also made the program expansion optional for states.
Implementing the expansion in Kansas would make more than 300,000 additional adults eligible for a program that today serves approximately 380,000 Kansans – mainly women, children, seniors in nursing homes and people with disabilities.
A KHI analysis handed out at the meeting estimated that about 240,000 additional Kansans would enroll in Medicaid if the expansion were implemented in 2014, including 122,185 adults and 117,886 children. According to the analysis, expanding Medicaid would cost the state an additional $519 million between 2014 and 2020.
The projected cost and enrollment figures in the KHI analysis are higher than those in a 2010 report prepared for the now-defunct Kansas Health Policy Authority and also higher than those in a state-by-state analysis prepared in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But the costs projected in the KHI analysis were considerably less than those estimated in 2011 by the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Wichita, which has opposed the Affordable Care Act and its implementation. The Kansas Policy Institute also projected the program’s cost through 2023.
Currently, the state’s Medicaid eligibility criteria for adults are among the most restrictive in the nation. Only those with children are eligible and then only if they earn less than 32 percent of FPL – $5,900 a year for a family of four.
Brownback hasn’t said whether he plans to implement or recommend the expansion for Kansas. But he has said that he doubts the federal government would keep its promise to initially pay 100 percent of the cost of serving all those newly made eligible by the Medicaid expansion. Under current law, the federal commitment would be good for the first three years, drop to 95 percent in 2017 and then to 90 percent in 2020, where it would remain.
Laszewski said covering currently uninsured Kansans in Medicaid would be significantly cheaper for taxpayers than providing them with tax credits to purchase private coverage in the exchange. And he said by agreeing to the expansion, Brownback and other Republican governors might be able to get federal officials to agree to their long-standing request to convert the program to block grants to states with fewer restrictions on how the money is spent.
“Put up or shut up, that’s what I say to Republican governors,” Laszewski said. “It gives you leverage to get what you’ve always said you wanted — autonomy. Go to the Obama administration and say, ‘OK, we’ll expand Medicaid but we’re not going to do it your way.’”
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.
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.
The head of the Kansas Hospital Association said today that most of the group's member hospitals have accepted the U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act and are ready to embrace reform.
“The number one thing I’m hearing from my people is, ‘Oh my gosh, are we going to have to go through this health reform political debate again?’” said Tom Bell, noting that he and other health care officials had hoped the ruling would give them a clearer picture of the future.
So far, he said, that’s not happened.
“I’m not so sure that – because of our political environment – we have any more certainty today than we did last week,” he said. “It’s hard to plan.”
Bell spoke during a Kansas Health Institute-sponsored panel discussion on the court’s ruling. Also participating on the panel were:
• Bill Rich, professor of constitutional law at Washburn University School of Law.
• Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger.
• Jay Angoff, director of the U.S. Health and Human Services regional office in Kansas City.
Angoff told the audience that over time “cooler heads are going to prevail” as the public learns more about the law’s benefits and costs.
The court's decision left intact the law's requirement that everyone who can afford health insurance buy it or pay a penalty. But the ruling also made the law's planned Medicaid expansion optional for states. Several Republican governors already have said they do not intend to expand Medicaid eligibility in their states. Gov. Sam Brownback hasn't said yet what his intentions might be with respect to the expansion, which could mean as many as 130,000 additional Kansans would gain eligibility.
Brownback has said he would take no steps to implement the Affordable Care Act until after the November elections, based on the assumption that Republicans will prevail in their bid for control of the White House and Congress and then repeal the law.
If Kansas opts not to expand its Medicaid coverage, Bell said, the state’s hospitals would be put in a position of still having to care for thousands of uninsured people in their emergency rooms while losing millions of dollars in federal disproportionate share payments.
Currently, the disproportionate share payments are meant to help hospitals offset the costs of caring for the uninsured.
Under the Affordable Care Act, Bell said, the payments would be phased out because it assumes the vast majority of the hospitals’ patients will be insured under Medicaid or otherwise by 2014, when the law's major coverage provisions are scheduled to kick in.
“There are a lot of things that really need to be looked at closely,” Bell said.
A Wichita legislator who attended the event said he thought fellow lawmakers would act in the 2013 legislative session to authorize Kansas' participation in the Medicaid expansion.
“If you’re a legislator and the hospitals’ (profit) margins in your district are tied to their DSH (disproportionate share) payments, how do you vote against giving them more patients with insurance through a Medicaid expansion if you know there isn’t going to be anything to replace the DSH payments with?” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who serves on the House Health and Services Committee. “At what point does ideology get by the practical reality?”
→ Related story: States balk at expanding Medicaid
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.
To help Kansans better understand the health reform law, the problems it was intended to address and the issues that prompted Kansas and 25 other states to challenge it in court, the Kansas Health Institute recently talked to several experts. Excerpts from those conversations are featured in this collection of short videos. Each offers an informed perspective on the law and the controversy that surrounds it as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on its constitutionality this month.
Maynard Oliverius, CEO, Stormont-Vail HealthCare Topeka
Oliverius, a longtime hospital administrator, provides a historical viewpoint on health reform and its ultimate goal of improving access to health care for all Americans. “The Affordable Care Act is really a continuation of a public health policy that was formulated really back in the 1940s,” he says. As part of the health reform law passed in 2010, he says, hospitals agreed to forgo $155 billion in Medicare compensation with the expectation that 32 million Americans who now are uninsured will gain coverage through Medicaid or the insurance exchanges.
Oliverius acknowledges that the health reform law has flaws but says, “What I would hope is that Congress would look at the law, tweak, fix those things that need to be adjusted and fixed, and try to move away from the political ideology war that seems to be going on today.”
This is the first of six short videos. Click here to watch the next video, or jump to others in the series below...