Health Exchange Cost Debate Continues

Chair Melanie Curtis (center) and the HBE Operations Committee meets in Seattle.

On Monday at a House Ways & Means Committee meeting, the Chair, Rep. Ross Hunter, questioned why the Washington State Health Benefit Exchange was going to cost over $50 million per year, and requested additional documentation.

On Wednesday the HBE Operations Committee struggled with a related question, how to raise that kind of money.

The HBE Staff is proposing that every individual or group in the state who purchases health insurance should pay a new 1% tax to fund the HBE. Large self-insured employers and government plans would be excluded from the tax. Everyone else would be required to subsidize the plans inside the exchange even if they bought their plan elsewhere.

A couple HBE Board members expressed concerns with the proposal. They were joined by the Committee Chair, Melanie Curtis, in a further concern with the deadlines that are driving the Board to make these decisions so soon. After a contentious debate the Committee decided to send the staff proposal to the full Board next Thursday for additional vetting.

At the Ways & Means legislative meeting on Monday Rep. Reuven Carlyle raised similar concerns regarding the documented “serious risks” in trying to meet the federal timetable, particularly with the information technology challenges. Rep. Hunter shared his concerns “with managing the risk,” and promised to expand legislative oversight.

For thise not familiar with it, the exchange is the state centerpiece of federal health care reform where small businesses and individuals will be able to buy insurance and determine if they qualify for subsidies. State residents will also still be able to buy insurance outside the HBE.