Can A Small Business Insurance Marketplace Take Root In Florida?

Blossoms flower shop in downtown Tallahassee is just the kind of small business that Florida Health Choices, an online marketplace for insurance, hopes to serve.

Blossoms’ owner, Jesica Parker, and director of operations, Lisa Metcalf, buy health insurance for themselves and their six employees from a not-for-profit HMO through a broker.  The plan has good coverage with a low deductible and reasonable co-pays, but the cost of the premiums have gone up every year the small business has offered insurance.

“In the beginning when we first started offering it and we came around to our first couple of renewals, I was surprised at the increase annually in our premium,” Parker said. “But now it’s something that we’ve come to expect and budget [for]. And now, 10 percent of our monthly budget goes to health insurance.”

Florida Health Choices was created in 2008 by the state legislature – with the idea of promoting competition and transparency in the health insurance market to bring prices down for small businesses. But it is still not operational. It was set to open this past summer, but has been delayed as it continues to try to recruit health insurance companies to sign up and offer their products.

Health choices looks similar to the insurance exchanges that the federal health overhaul law says every state must create, but the Florida marketplace pre-dates the federal Affordable Care Act by two years, and the state has worked to distance it from its federal counterpart.

“I want to be real clear that we are not a health insurance exchange. That’s something that’s defined in the Affordable Care Act and we don’t even come close to meeting that definition,” said Florida Health Choices CEO Rose Naff. “This is a voluntary market place. They don’t have to come and offer their products and services, and also it’s voluntary for employers and their employees.”

Health Choices will serve businesses with fewer than 50 employees, like Blossoms.  And unlike the exchanges other states are working on now to comply with the health law, it has no subsidies to help anyone buy insurance. The plans it offers don’t have to guarantee a minimum level of coverage for consumers. 

But for small businesses like Blossoms, it doesn’t matter what the system is called, it’s all about how it works and what kind of plans are being offered.

“Just because an exchange may be created, if the insurance companies involved in that exchange aren’t beneficial, affordable and have the adequate coverage to be beneficial to us and our employees, then the whole thing will be futile.” said Metcalf.