The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter just before state offices closed Friday. In it, Chaney tells Bryant, a fellow Republican, that the federal government will run an exchange in Mississippi if the state does not create its own.
"Phil, there is simply no legitimate reason to impede the development of a state-based exchange in this point in time," Chaney wrote.
Exchanges are online marketplaces where people can shop for insurance. Under the federal health law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010, every state is required to have an exchange so people can get coverage starting in January 2014, much of it federally subsidized. States that don't create their own will have one run by Washington.
Bryant's spokesman, Mick Bullock, responded Friday that the governor received Chaney's letter and stands by his own earlier position. Bryant told U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that the insurance commissioner lacks the legal authority to create an exchange on behalf of the state. Bryant said only the governor has that power. Exchanges must be approved by Washington.
"Further, Gov. Bryant has consistently stated his opposition to furthering the implementation of ObamaCare in Mississippi, and he believes that establishing a health insurance exchange as defined by the Affordable Care Act will do just that," Bullock said in a statement to AP.
The rift over the health exchange is a rare public dispute between members of the Republican Party, which controls most statewide offices.
Chaney's office has been working on an exchange for months, and he has been sharply criticized by tea party conservatives who believe he is promoting big government.
Chaney disagrees with their criticism, saying exchanges are inevitable and it's in the state's best interest to have as much control as possible. He submitted a proposal to Washington in mid-November. On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services said it had approved exchange proposals for Washington, D.C., and 17 states, four of which have Republican governors. HHS officials said they did not act on Mississippi's request because of the split between Bryant and Chaney over who has authority to create or oversee a plan.
Chaney said Friday in the letter to Bryant that the insurance commissioner has authority, under state law, to create an exchange. He also said he wants the state to control an exchange, and he believes Bryant's effort to block his proposal ultimately will hurt the state by cutting local insurance agents out of participation.
"I recognize that the argument you have made is simply that you do not agree that we will be able to maintain any control over even a state-based exchange, and that by establishing a state-based exchange we are advancing 'ObamaCare,'" Chaney wrote to Bryant. "I am confident that this is not the correct view to take on this subject."
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