Health exchange options may expand

Only one insurer has been OK'd to provide plans in Clark County

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The board of the state's health exchange on Wednesday launched an effort to increase the number of insurance plans available for purchase on the state-based online marketplace.

The Washington Health Benefit Exchange board was scheduled to certify the 31 plans approved earlier this month by the state insurance commissioner's office. Instead, board members cited concerns with limited plan options and opted to seek an extension from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to try to get more plans eligible.

Of the four insurance carriers approved to sell plans on the state-based exchange, only one was approved for Clark County — leaving local uninsured residents with the fewest options in the state.

LifeWise Health Plan of Washington, which currently serves about 6,800 Clark County residents, was approved to offer eight health plans on the exchange, which is where uninsured individuals will buy coverage for themselves and their families. Every other county in the state has at least two insurers offering 24 plan options. Seven counties will have 31 plan options from which to choose.

Richard Onizuka, chief executive officer of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, issued a statement following the board's Wednesday decision.

The plan certification will now take place sometime in the next two weeks, Onizuka said. The postponement will give the board additional time to review the requirements for the health plans and work with the insurance commissioner's office and the federal government to "collaborate on providing additional coverage options for individuals and families in Washington state," he said in the statement.

"We look forward to the certification of these brand new coverage options that will allow thousands of residents to access the important health care services they need at costs that fit their budget," Onizuka said.

That includes three of the nine insurers whose plans were initially denied by the insurance commissioner's office.

Kaiser Permanente, Community Health Plan of Washington and Coordinated Care Company have all appealed the commissioner's decision. Two of the appeal hearings will take place next week; the third hasn't yet been scheduled.

Kaiser Vice President Sue Hennessy applauded the board's decision.

"We have individual and family plans on file right now with the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, and we urge the OIC to move quickly to approve these plans — which resolve all technical issues that were flagged earlier in the review process," Hennessy said in a written statement.

Trent Green, senior vice president for Legacy Health, testified at the board's meeting in Seattle on Wednesday. Legacy Health has been a staunch supporter of the Affordable Care Act and the creation of the health insurance exchanges in Washington and Oregon, he said.

However, Green urged the board to reconsider the denied plans, saying the limited options, specifically in Clark County, do not "meet the spirit or intent of the Affordable Care Act."

"The limited choice of insurers means that many people may have to choose between continuity of care — that is, staying with their current providers — and receiving the benefits of subsidies available in the exchange," Green testified. "This displacement is harmful to the quality of care the ACA was intended to improve."

Green said the viability and credibility of the state's insurance exchange depends on having consumer choice, competition and accountability. That cannot happen with only four insurers in the exchange and only one insurer in Southwest Washington, he said.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said he approved the plans that met guidelines set by the Affordable Care Act by the July 31 deadline set by the state insurance exchange. At the meeting, Kreidler said he doubted additional plans could be reviewed and ready to go by the Oct. 1 launch of the exchange.

"The job of the exchange board is to make sure that on Oct. 1 there are lots of good choices available, so I understand why they hope a week's delay might result in more choices," Kreidler said in a written statement. "But it's my duty to ensure that the plans people buy include the benefits and the providers they were promised, at the right price."

"On July 31, I made the tough call to disapprove plans that weren't ready," he continued. "As someone who's championed health reform since the 1980s, I didn't make that decision lightly."


Marissa Harshman:360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com