Insurance Exchange’s Request to Pursue Its Own Health Coverage Met with Skepticism

Rocky King, executive director of the exchange, wants to try out some innovative coverage models prior to small businesses purchasing coverage through the exchange

February 2, 2012—An unexpectedly heated debate transpired in the House Health Care Committee yesterday over whether the Oregon Health Insurance Exchange’s 11 staff members should be able to seek their own healthcare coverage rather than be covered by the Public Employees’ Benefit Board (PEBB), which provides benefits to state employees.

Rocky King, executive director of the insurance exchange, told legislators he wanted to explore options to create an innovative health plan that would not only engage people in their health but, at the same time, lower costs. Such a plan wouldn’t be subject to the Insurance Code’s small group health insurance sections, but would need approval from the Department of Consumer and Business Services, and could end up becoming a model for coverage offered to small businesses through the exchange.

Although it’s a seemingly innocuous part of House Bill 4164 -- which would move Oregon’s health insurance exchange forward -- Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) said that section of the bill raised enough questions that it could slow the bill’s progress.

“We’d like to move this bill as fast as we possibly can,” to a floor vote, Greenlick said. “Except for that section, there’s no controversy. It’s raising so many questions that we could not move it as smoothly as we could.”

Greenlick wanted more specifics on King’s intentions such as what kind of health benefits would be offered to the employees of the exchange, then asked King if he’d be comfortable stripping that section from the bill. “We would like the opportunity to model something,” King replied. “[But] if that is something you would like us not to do, we will support that.”

Could the exchange simply go ahead and begin testing different health plans without having that ability codified in law? Greenlick asked.

That wouldn’t be possible, King said, because the benefit plans that the exchange might pursue “really go beyond what PEBB has done at this point,” adding, “what we want to do is take some risks and try some things.” King didn’t elaborate on what those risks might be.

“You want to put your money where your mouth is,” said Rep. Margeret Doherty (D-Tigard).

“Correct,” said King, who admitted that whatever health coverage the exchange would get wouldn’t be as comprehensive as the benefits under PEBB. But it would, he said, give the exchange a head start in knowing what types of benefit packages insurance companies were willing to offer small businesses.

Despite Greenlick’s strong misgivings, the rest of the House Health Care Committee couldn’t understand why the exchange’s request was controversial.

“I’ve heard no controversy, and I’m not inclined to take it out,” said Rep. Julie Parrish (R-Tualatin), who voted against creating an exchange during last year’s legislative session and is a vocal opponent. “Frankly, I’d like to see more choice in the current system.”

Rep. Val Hoyle (D-Eugene) asked Greenlick who else opposed that section of the bill. Greenlick was characteristically cryptic. “I didn’t say people were in opposition to it,” he said. “People began to ask questions about it.”

It’s still unclear whether that section will be stricken from the bill. Rep. Jim Thompson (R-Dallas), who co-chairs the committee, said it’s most likely the bill will be voted out on Friday, moving it to the House floor.

“I do not want this to interfere with this bill going forward in any way,” King said toward the end of the hearing. “It’s not a critical piece of the bill to us, but one we think honors the spirit to offer innovative ideas and plans to small businesses.”

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