Health care forum opens up dialogue on state's exchange

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Northeast Mississippians had a chance to chew on plans for a state health exchange at a public forum Tuesday.
“We have a slim window to create an exchange that meets the needs of the state of Mississippi,” said Aaron Sisk, senior attorney with the Mississippi Insurance Department, as he opened a Tuesday morning community forum in Tupelo with 40 people attending.
Under federal health care reform laws, states must have an exchange in place Jan. 1, 2014, or use a federal health care exchange.
Health exchanges are central hubs where health insurance plans can be compared side by side and purchased. It allows for a range of coverage options. Companies would compete on service, price and networks.
“The idea is to create greater access and flexibility,” said Randy Shumway, chief executive of the Cicero Group, a research and marketing company which is leading forums across the state to gather input on the state health exchange program.
The insurance department contracted with Utah-based Leavitt Partners and Cicero Group to gather input from stakeholders and develop the health insurance exchange. The preliminary research results from interviews and surveys with insurance professionals, elected officials, consumer advocates, employers, employees and community leaders show that most people want:
– A state-created exchange instead of a federal one;
– A simple enrollment process;
– A simple way to compare and select plans;
– Access to real person with health insurance expertise, in addition to a website or customer service call center that can answer questions.
“It’s not going to solve all the problems,” Shumway said, but it should increase access and flexibility in health insurance.
The Mississippi Insurance Department is modeling the exchange after Utah’s health exchange, which began in January 2010 with 11 small employer groups and now has more than 130 groups covering more than 3,500 people.
About a quarter of the participating companies did not offer insurance to their employees before joining the exchange.
Four of the five largest health insurance companies doing business in Utah are represented on exchange and they have 146 different health insurance plan designs.
Although a broker is not required, most companies use a broker to help employees navigate the Utah exchange.
Tupelo comments
The Tupelo meeting drew comments from health insurance consumers, doctors, insurance brokers and employers.
Insurance brokers in particular had lots of questions and were wary about the exchanges.
Skip Johnson, an insurance broker attending the meeting, said he was concerned the health exchanges would have the unintended consequence of undermining existing group health care coverage.
Other insurance professionals were concerned about Mississippi having sufficient population to be attractive to health insurance companies, especially considering the population’s generally poor health status.
The forums are a good first step, said Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, but it will be important to get more consumers involved in the process.
“We want a plan for Mississippians designed by Mississippians,” said Mitchell, who attended meetings in Starkville, Tupelo and Olive Branch, “but for that to work, there truly has to be consumer involvement in design and ongoing administration of the exchanges.”

On the exchange
– For more information on the proposed Mississippi Health Exchange, visit www.mid.state.ms.us or email
mshealthexchange@mid.state.ms.us.