- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2014

Officials in Idaho say they’re undaunted by the well-documented failures of Obamacare exchanges in neighboring states and are moving full-steam ahead with plans to launch their own web portal this November.

While executives at Cover Oregon and Nevada Health Link abandon their state-run websites and turn to the federal exchange (HealthCare.gov), Your Health Idaho is headed in the opposite direction.

The state relied on the federal website for the open-enrollment period that ended in mid-April because it had less than 200 days last year set up its own web-exchange when state lawmakers authorized the project. It was one of two states — New Mexico is the other — that had to wait a year for its own site, and exchange officials say the delay has been a plus as they meet with other states to discuss what went right or wrong during Obamacare’s first round.

“Hindsight is 20-20, so we have the advantage or going through the open enrollment period and taking lessons from their successes and failures,” said Jody Olson, communications director for Your Health Idaho.

Idaho’s situation is anomalous in certain respects. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and other Republicans in Boise dislike Obamacare, yet many of them said they should take the reins of its new marketplace instead of relying on the federal government.

“From our perspective, we felt like we could do it better,” said Republican state Sen. Dean Cameron, an insurance agent.

The state-based exchanges are a key pillar of the Affordable Care Act that allow qualified consumers to select and purchase private plans online, often with the help of government subsidies. The District of Columbia and 16 states opted to set up their own exchanges, while 27 relied on the federal government’s marketplace and seven set up a federal-state partnership.

But only 15 of the 17 state-run web portals went live in October, because of the delays in Idaho and New Mexico. The federal website’s early stumbles did not help either state, but matters could have been much worse. Several state-run exchanges that were supposedly ready for enrollment faced problems long after a “tech surge” patched the federal system.

Oregon became the first state to abandon its own exchange, after an ugly rollout that has prompted an FBI investigation into whether the exchange misrepresented its progress to federal officials. This month, Nevada decided to drop its tech contractor and rely on HealthCare.gov for the 2015 plan year.

Those stumbles haven’t rippled into Idaho, where officials said they are working diligently to make sure their portal is up by November.

“We feel like we’re on really solid ground,” Mr. Cameron said.

Idaho’s Republican senators in Washington say it is up to state officials to decide if the state-run website is worth it.

“They don’t need me telling them what to do,” said Sen. James Risch, a former governor. “This is their decision and I’m not going to state my preference. I’m not going to get involved.”

From the start, Mr. Otter objected to the president’s reforms. But after the Supreme Court upheld it and President Obama won re-election, “the governor believed that it would be far wiser to have people in and from Idaho working on the exchange than to walk away from the table and just let the federal government make decisions that affect the lives of our citizens,” Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said.

About 76,000 people signed up for private health insurance in Idaho during Obamacare’s first enrollment period. Even if 15 percent of people do not pay up and effectuate their coverage, the state still exceeded expectations by 185 percent, according to an Avalere Health analysis.

Exchange officials said the results reflect pent-up demand, while others noted Idaho is not the wealthiest state, meaning many consumers qualify for subsidies on the exchange. The state has not opted to expand its Medicaid program under Obamacare, which may be a bridge too far for moderate Republicans who supported the exchange and would face intense primary challenges.

“Despite the pathetic national rollout, we have spent, comparatively speaking, a much smaller amount of money ($11 million) on our exchange and have the third highest enrollment per capita in the nation,” Mr. Hanian said in an email. “Compare that experience to Oregon.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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