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Creation of ‘virtual marketplace’ begins

By Christine Jordan Sexton
2/27/2009 © Florida Health News

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s Cover Florida plan got most of the attention last year, but it wasn’t the only health-insurance initiative that passed the 2008 Legislature.

The forgotten one, Florida Health Choices, is only now coming together. Its new board was to hold its organizational meeting today, just as the 2009 session is about to begin. 

A "virtual marketplace" where small businesses can buy coverage, Florida Health Choices will have a $1.5 million budget for staff and travel in a tight budget year.

Appointments to the Health Choices board of directors have been slow in coming. Former State Rep. Aaron Bean said “it was like pulling teeth” to get the governor and Senate President to make their appointments to the board. Crist made his last just three days ago, and information from the Agency for Health Care Administration shows the Senate president’s office still hasn’t made all its appointments..
“I just kept pushing to get everybody on board,” Bean said.

In addition to Bean, members include both doctors and business executives. Among the better-known are State Sen. Durell Peaden; Karl Altenburger, a member of the Florida Medical Association Board of Governors; and Becky Cherney, president of Florida Health Care Coalition, an employer group. 

Bean is running for the Florida Senate in 2010 and was sponsor of the Health Choices bill last year when he was chair of the powerful House council that oversaw health care spending and policy.

In theory, any type of policy can be sold through the Health Choices marketplace program, whether it’s a traditional policy, HMO-style plan, or an alternative sold by a doctor or chiropractor that covers only a few services or visits. The products are not subject to state insurance requirements.

Health Choices won’t be open to individuals, just businesses. Once the employer enters the program, though, each worker can choose from the array of plans. Also, once a plan is purchased it is portable, meaning workers can take it with them when they leave that employer.

Cover Florida, launched in early January, allows individuals to purchase pared back benefit plans from either Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida or United Healthcare. People living in a handful of other areas—such as Daytona Beach and South Florida—also can choose a smaller regional plan.

No state subsidies were provided and the plans have to take all who apply, regardless of health risks. So the plans tend to offer a narrower range of services and have lower caps on spending than group plans. Blue Cross and Blue Shield reports that as of today, it had enrolled 572 customers in a Cover Florida plan.  United Healthcare enrollments won't take effect until March 1, but a spokesman said the company has received over 7,000 calls about the program.

Bean maintains there is a place for both initiatives in a state like Florida, where more than 3.8 million are estimated to be uninsured.

-- Contact Christine Jordan Sexton.