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State insurance chief disputes report he’s putting Exchange on hold

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney is puzzled by a story in another newspaper Friday reporting that he will wait until after the November elections to do further work on a state health insurance exchange for individuals and businesses as part of the Affordable Care Act.

“I want to make it clear that my position regarding the Health Insurance Exchange has not changed,” Chaney said in a press statement Friday.

Mississippi has already received $21 million in federal money for planning and implementing the private-sector marketplace for individuals and businesses to find affordable medical insurance. A busy summer of work, including crucial contract awards, is ahead, Insurance Department officials say.

The newspaper reported that plans for Mississippi’s state-run Exchange are on hold pending the outcome of the November elections that could change control of the White House and Senate. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders have vowed to repeal the so-called “Obamacare” if they win in November.

In a nod to those who want the project stopped or at least delayed, Chaney pledged to hold off on any “final decisions regarding the Exchange until after the presidential and congressional elections on Nov. 6.”

In the meantime, Chaney said his office would continue “to do those things toward the establishment of an Exchange that we must do to keep us in a position to make the best decision in November for all Mississippians. That is the only way to keep all of our available options open.”

Chaney, a Republican, has been under pressure from such Affordable Health Care Act opponents as the  Mississippi Tea Party to stop work on the exchanges and await a possible change in control of the federal government. Even Gov. Phil Bryant thinks Chaney has stopped work on the project, issuing a statement through his spokesman that he appreciates Chaney’s “decision to delay implementing a health insurance exchange until after the November election.”

The insurance commissioner says he has no intention of putting the brakes on the project and will move ahead with awarding a series of contracts this summer.

Chaney said in an early July interview that Mississippi could suffer unnecessarily if it failed to meet the federal government’s requirement that states have plans ready for the exchanges by Nov. 16. Additionally, each state is under a Jan. 1, 2014 deadline for establishing a fully functional Health Care Exchange and must show by Jan. 1, 2013 the capability to operate an Exchange.

Failing to meet the mid November deadline would open the door for federal officials to design Mississippi’s health care exchange. “They would have a one-size-fits-all,” the commissioner said. “That has been my major concern, and why I jumped on this early.”

In Friday’s press statement, Chaney added: “If we halt everything now, we will have prematurely surrendered Mississippi’s health insurance market to federal control. I took an oath of office to protect the interests of the people of Mississippi and that is what I intend to do.”

Mississippi has already established a Web portal (OneMississippi.com) for businesses and individuals to shop for affordable health care coverage.

Work ahead in meeting terms of the Affordable Care Act includes the critical phase of implementing the operational nuts-and-bolts of the insurance exchange by the 2014 deadline, Chaney said.

The Insurance Department and Mississippi Comprehensive Health Insurance Risk Pool Association Exchange are heading up the Exchange project, with the non-profit Risk Pool assigned management of the Exchange and the IT portion of its development.

Ultimately, the plan is to provide a marketplace for individuals and businesses to select and buy health-care coverage. Individuals are required under the health care reform law to purchase the insurance and will receive subsidizes if they meet income limits. Businesses that have 50 more workers must provide coverage to employees as well. Both individuals and businesses are to be financially penalized if they fail to provide the coverage.

The portal that is up now has a couple of companies participating and more are expected by the end of the month, according to Mike Chaney, insurance commissioner.

Chaney began work on the Exchange during the term of former governor Haley Barbour. The two envisioned the Exchange as a private marketplace available to Mississippians should the U.S. Supreme Court strike down the Exchange provision of Affordable Care Act.

“The next thing we have to do is establish the benefits that must be offered under the mandate,” Chaney said in an early July interview.

The workload ahead promises a busy summer for Insurance Department officials, though the IT phases are separate from the other phases handled by the department.

Mississippi has received a pair of federal grants to prepare the Exchange. One was an Exchange Planning Grant of $1 million and the other a Level One Establishment Grant of $20 million. The Establishment Grant will be used to conduct public education and outreach programs, plan the Exchange’s IT infrastructure, and continue to coordinate with other public programs such as Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program).

The Insurance Department anticipates submitting an application for additional federal funds to continue Exchange implementation through 2013.

The federally mandated Exchange is to be operated by the Mississippi Comprehensive Health Insurance Risk Pool Association and regulated by the Department of Insurance.

The first phase extends from July 15 to August 14 and focuses on a comprehensive pre-operational public awareness plan. Specifically, the selected contractor will develop a statewide community outreach strategy and initiate a campaign to inform residents about the Exchange.

“This is a very large grassroots outreach,” said Aaron Sisk, Insurance Department attorney. “It’s intended to get information to three million Mississippians.”

The primary objective is to canvass door-to-door and meet with community leaders and community organizations

The critical second part of phase one will begin August 15 and extend to Dec. 31, 2013.




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