Online Health Insurance Market May Be Coming to Florida

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With a boost this week from Gov. Rick Scott, the long-discussed Florida Health Choices program is moving closer to creating an online health-insurance marketplace.

Lawmakers approved Florida Health Choices in 2008, billing it as a way to provide more choices to small businesses that were getting hammered by rising insurance costs.

But after lengthy delays in carrying out the law, Chief Executive Officer Rose Naff said Wednesday the program could start operating this summer. Naff said she did not have a specific date.

Scott signed two bills Tuesday designed to help the program, with one (HB 1473) providing public-records exemptions that Naff said were important to protecting confidential information about people and health plans in the program.

Also, a broader bill (HB 1125) included a provision eliminating a restriction that Florida Health Choices would only be open to businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Naff downplayed the significance of that change, saying the Florida Health Choices board of directors would need to approve allowing larger employers into the program --- something it hasn’t done.

“Our target is still going to be businesses at 50 and smaller,’’ Naff said.

After three years of waiting for the program, however, even some supporters are uncertain about when Florida Health Choices will start. As an example, Allen Douglas, an official with the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, expressed skepticism that it will be ready to operate this summer.

Douglas also pointed to questions about the 2010 federal health overhaul, which calls on states to eventually establish health insurance “exchanges,” which could be similar to Florida Health Choices.

Florida Health Choices has tried to distance itself from the exchange issue, as Florida leads a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the health overhaul. Regardless, it’s unclear how Florida will deal with an exchange if the federal law is found constitutional --- or whether that would affect Florida Health Choices.

“I think where we’re at today, everybody is on hold, waiting to see what happens with the federal law and the federal lawsuit,’’ said Douglas, whose small-business group also is a key player as a plaintiff in the constitutional challenge.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who was then the state House speaker, helped push Florida Health Choices through the Legislature. The basic idea is to create an online market where people can shop for various types of health coverage, without all of the regulations in the more-traditional insurance system.

Businesses would sign up for the program and likely pay part of the premiums for their employees, who would then use the online marketplace to choose the types of health coverage they want.

As an example, a small business might currently be able to only offer one health plan to its employees. But under Florida Health Choices, those employees might be able to choose from several plans, said Michael Garner, president of the Florida Association of Health Plans.

Initially, coverage would be offered by already-established industry players such as insurers and HMOs. But eventually, the marketplace would be open to various types of providers, including hospitals and clinics, that might sell specific types of services.

Garner said his members are trying to be “aggressive” in helping get Florida Health Choices started. Among the companies that have expressed interest in taking part are industry giants Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida and United Healthcare, according to Florida Health Choices documents.

“We want it to be sooner, rather than later,’’ said Garner, who also is chairman of a vendor committee that is working with Florida Health Choices.

But Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida CHAIN, a group that advocates for patients, said her group has always been critical of the Florida Health Choices concept.

“We see it as a hodgepodge of inadequate, not-even health coverage,’’ Goodhue said.

Goodhue said it doesn’t make sense to move forward with Florida Health Choices when the health exchanges are required in 2014. Those exchanges are expected to have more-stringent coverage requirements than Florida Health Choices.

She said the state should be spending its time working on “meaningful coverage.’’

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