State’s health-insurance exchange beginning to take shape

One year from now, Colorado residents and small businesses with fewer than 50 employees will have the opportunity to compare, contrast and purchase health-insurance plans online in a one-stop shop set up by the state.

The Colorado Health Benefit Exchange is scheduled to go live in October 2013. During the last few months, three Denver-based nonprofits have canvassed the state, collecting feedback about what features consumers want to see.

The exchange is expected to lower premiums because buyers will be able to pool their purchasing power and because insurance companies will have to compete for their business.

“The mission is to increase affordability, access and choice,” said Lisa Ritland, field director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, one of the three nonprofits. “The exchange is a centralized marketplace, a bargaining mechanism to connect people with the most affordable plans. You’ll be able to make apple-to-apple comparisons on co-pays and deductibles, and see if you qualify for tax credits.”

Ritland, who gave a presentation Thursday night at Carver Brewing Co. in Durango, said common suggestions from the public have included: live chat assistance from neutral and knowledgeable staff; a glossary to explain obscure insurance terms; concise, visual summaries of plans in layman’s terms; and involvement from consumer watchdog groups such as the Better Business Bureau.

For those without computer access or who are uncomfortable with the Internet, the exchange may coordinate with municipal or county health departments, or social-service groups, so people can evaluate their options in person.

The exchange system is an integral component of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2010. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal the law, often called “Obamacare,” if elected. Were he to succeed, Colorado’s insurance exchange would continue to exist, albeit in a weakened form, because it was created by the state Legislature in May 2011.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that Colorado would receive a $43.5 million grant to establish the nuts and bolts of the exchange; it comes after an $18 million grant awarded in February.

About 830,000 Coloradans – or about one in six – currently lack health insurance, according to a 2011 survey by the Colorado Health Institute. Once up and running, the exchange is expected to bring 540,000 of those people into the fold.

Unemployment and rising premiums – combined with declining family incomes – were the main factors listed by respondents who lacked coverage.

The demographic least insured was ages 19-34, the study said, because young people who consider themselves healthy do not see the need for insurance and because they tend to take seasonal or part-time jobs that do not offer employer-based coverage.

Barring certain exemptions for financial hardship and religious beliefs, those who still lack health insurance in January 2014 will incur a fine.

The three nonprofits hope to compile and present their findings to the nine-member exchange board, responsible for setting up and overseeing the exchange, by the end of October, Ritland said.

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