CMS UNVEILS WEBSITE AND CALL CENTER FOR EXCHANGES

On June 24, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) unveiled a revised HealthCare.gov website and a 24-hour-a-day consumer call center to provide information on the “Health Insurance Marketplace,” commonly referred to as state insurance exchanges. The exchanges, created under the Affordable Care Act, are to begin providing coverage on January 1, 2014. Open enrollment is scheduled to begin on October 1, 2013, notwithstanding widespread skepticism.

In a press release, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said, “In October, HealthCare.gov will be the online destination for consumers to compare and enroll in affordable, qualified health plans.” It is expected that by October, a health insurance buyer will be able to create an account, complete an online application, and shop for health plans. The website is expected to include integration with social media, sharable content, and chat functionality.

CMS’s latest effort comes in the wake of two Government Accountability Office reports, both issued on June 19, warning that technological hurdles and poor communication to the public are jeopardizing a “timely and smooth” start for state exchanges. One report dealt with CMS’s progress with respect to the “federally facilitated” exchanges to be established in 34 states, while the other report discussed the status of federal and state efforts to establish Small Business Health Options Programs (“SHOPs”). The GAO noted that many exchange-related tasks that were to have been completed by March 31 remained unfinished, and that there might not be sufficient time to test systems and iron out bugs before the implementation date.

CMS and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials and President Obama have consistently expressed confidence that the exchanges will be ready to begin operations by the October 1 deadline.

CMS RELEASES PROPOSED RULE ON EXCHANGE OPERATION

On June 14, CMS released a proposed rule to give states more flexibility in the operation of health insurance exchanges. The “program integrity guidelines” outlined in the rule clarify state oversight of various premium stabilization and affordability programs and allow states to operate a state-based SHOP even where the state has elected to have HHS run a “federally facilitated marketplace” for its individual health insurance market. CMS issued a fact sheet on the proposed rule. The SHOP program is further described here.

The proposed rule includes a number of other provisions “to safeguard federal funds and to protect consumers,” according to the fact sheet. The rule was published in the Federal Register on June 19 with a 30-day public comment period.