Colorado’s New Element In Exchange Plan: Certainty

DENVER – Last week’s election results meant that Robert Ruiz-Moss, an executive at the insurance giant WellPoint, could heave a sigh of relief. “I think a known is always preferable to an unknown,” he said.

The “known” he’s talking about is that Colorado will now continue full speed ahead on building a health insurance exchange. There’s no longer uncertainty over how a President Romney might change the health care law, or how Colorado might have to adapt. “The scenarios that didn’t occur are really hard to know for sure,” said Ruiz-Moss. “You never know for sure if that would’ve been a better scenario, a worse scenario. It would’ve been different, but we know we’ve got the one in front of us.”

Ruiz-Moss is closely involved in setting up Colorado’s health insurance exchange, the online marketplaces where individuals and small businesses will shop for insurance, and if they qualify, get a subsidy for that coverage.

He’s one of three insurance company executives that Democratic Gov. John Hinkenlooper and state lawmakers appointed to a exchange governing board.  They’ve been hard at it for the last 16 months – writing rules, hiring contractors and applying for federal grants to create the new marketplace that’s supposed to offer Colorado consumers more choices, lower prices and an easier way to shop for health insurance.

Most states – especially those with Republican governors and legislatures – have opted to have the federal government create and run their exchanges, which are supposed to start enrolling customers in October 2013 for policies that kick in January 2014.  

Steven Summer, head of the Colorado Hospital Association, is also pleased that the election outcome means Colorado’s exchange is green-lighted. “I went for a general physical this morning and the doctor said, ‘My God, your blood pressure’s down.’ I said, ‘Well, it must be the election.’ It’s behind us and now we can move forward,” said Summer. “For people who are unable to afford health care insurance, it will be a way through subsidized access to health care. They’ll be able to buy policies. So, hopefully, that population, hundreds of thousands of people, now will be able to get access to subsidized polices through the exchange.”

More people with health insurance means fewer unpaid hospital bills, so it’s no surprise hospitals like anything that makes it easier for people to get coverage. But in Colorado, even some Republicans who hate what they call Obamacare, support that the state is setting up its own health insurance exchange.

“I believe Colorado knows how to do health better than the federal government,” said Amy Stephens, a Republican state lawmaker. She co-sponsored the bill last year that put Colorado on the path to creating its own exchange. She took a beating for it from some members of her own party. But she continues to argue that Colorado was smart to take the federal health law’s option to build its own health insurance exchange, and not resist implementing the law entirely, like other states.

She says that gives Colorado more control over its destiny: “And if we hadn’t done anything, many, many people would be swept into this federal system that could frankly care less about them.”

Stephens still calls the health law in general “a disaster,” but her law setting up Colorado’s health insurance exchange includes at least some Republican oversight over how it develops. That gives her some comfort, since Democrats won majorities in both the state House and Senate.

The health care industry here, as well as business and consumer groups, say there’s still a lot of work to be done for Colorado to establish an exchange that helps make health coverage more affordable, and there’s no guarantee that it will actually work as envisioned in the federal health care law. But they think an exchanged designed in Colorado, by Coloradans, stands a better chance of succeeding.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Colorado Public RadioNPR and Kaiser Health News.