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Vt. gets $18M for health exchange

By CHRIS GAROFOLO
Brattleboro Reformer, Wednesday, November 30, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced on Tuesday Vermont will receive more than $18 million to fund the design and development of a larger health benefits exchange to serve as the foundation for the state's future single-payer plan.

Thirteen states received grants to establish affordable insurance exchanges -- a so-called one-stop online marketplace where consumers can choose a private health insurance plan fitting their individual insurance needs -- to provide more flexibility and resources within the Affordable Care Act.

Overall, the federal $220 million in Affordable Insurance Exchange grants will help uninsured citizens buy private health insurance through online marketplaces.

"This is what we hoped for," said State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, who was recently appointed to the Health Access Oversight Committee.

"It's part of the plan that we're hoping to take to the next step in creating our exchange and continuing along that path of being ready to, either 2014 or 2017, implement our new health care system," he added. "I think it vindicates support for what we're going here in Vermont and trying to help us move forward. I think it's actually a great opportunity for Vermont because there are some states that are actually stepping back and that leaves more room for Vermont to be in the forefront of health care reform."

The Vermont Agency of Human Services will use the funds to design a Health Benefits Exchange to work with consumers and other interested parties to continue insurance market reforms and develop new information technology systems.

Funding will also pay for a number of staff positions to ensure exchange implementation activities and coordination work moving forward.

According to Vermont's Director of Health Care Reform Robin Lunge, the state intends to continue moving forward in the design of a benefits exchange to provide a platform for the evolution of the envisioned single-payer health care system.

"We're very excited to get the federal funding that we were looking forward to. We're continuing in the next steps for designing the health benefits exchange," Lunge said. "We see the federal health benefit exchange as the way to create the foundation for the single-payer system. So we get the federal support to create state-of-the-art information technology systems (for example) and to help us design the next step in health benefits through the exchange."

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a first-term Democrat, said the federal grant is a critical step toward overhauling the health care system within Vermont.

"This was great news from Washington because the $18 million federal grant will enable us to create an easy-to-use web-based system to help people find health care benefits, plan for affordable benefit packages for Vermonters, and more," Shumlin said. "This grant will move us further along the path toward a single-payer health care system in Vermont that controls skyrocketing costs threatening Vermont families and businesses."

The Shumlin administration said Vermont's health benefit exchange will vastly simplify the insurance purchasing and enrollment programs beginning as soon as 2014. The state plans to convert the exchange by 2017 to a public, single-payer health care model.

For Vermont lawmakers, the arrival of the federal money is perfect timing. The state is in the process of designing a single-payer, publicly-financed system that will provide insurance to all Vermonters.

The Legislature passed the reform measure this spring, which set up a five-member Green Mountain Care Board to design a cost containment system and how the state will deliver the services.

Critics have questioned how Vermont's government can afford such a program and fear businesses may flee the state, leaving future economic growth in jeopardy. Nevertheless, advocates for the groundbreaking legislation say this federal boost helps keep Vermont on the right track.

Said Lunge: "In terms of moving toward single-payer, I think what most people should keep in mind is that we see single-payer as an opportunity."

Lawmakers against the health care reforms question having federal money establish a benefits exchange in Vermont that will be replaced by a single-payer system within the next four to six years.

The federal health and human services department reported more than half of the states are now creating marketplaces to help millions purchase insurance.

"We are committed to giving states the flexibility to implement the Affordable Care Act in the way that works for them," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. "And exchanges will give consumers more choices and make it easy to compare and shop for insurance plans."

Establishing an insurance exchange is the first step for state residents to receive federal tax credits and premium subsidies for meaningful health insurance under the federal law. But the program can also manage an insurance exchange eventually to help administer a single-payer system.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a release the state has proven itself as a national leader on health insurance policy and practice.

"These funds will allow our state to develop a health insurance marketplace that in the short term will help Vermonters choose affordable health insurance, and that in the long term will be a stepping stone to the state's goal of universal health coverage," he said. "Today's difficult economy means fewer Americans have access to health insurance or have the ability to pay for health care. This award will help Vermont move closer to the goal of insurance access for every Vermonter and to address the problem of rising health costs."

Of the 13 states awarded grants on Tuesday, 12 are receiving Level One status to provide one year of funding to those already making progress using their exchange planning grant. The thirteenth state, Rhode Island, is receiving the first-in-the-nation Level Two grant to offer multi-year funding for states further along in its planning.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.

http://www.reformer.com/ci_19437115