Insurance exchange launches today in Colo.

By Joe Hanel
Journal Denver Bureau

DENVER – It’s Oct. 1, and Obamacare has arrived.

For the majority of Coloradans, today brings no changes.

But for uninsured people and small-business owners, it’s a the first day they can shop for health insurance on Colorado’s new online marketplace, Connect for Health Colorado.

The idea is to give people a one-stop shop where they can find a plan that works for them and compare prices among several companies.

It will take months or more to see if the idea works, Success will be judged by how much the exchange drives down costs and helps the approximately 800,000 Coloradans who lack insurance.

About 15 companies statewide are offering policies through the exchange, said Vince Plymell, spokesman for the state Division of Insurance.

“There are some states out there that only had a handful of carriers,” Plymell said.

The online health insurance exchange is nonprofit charted by the state, and officials said it would be up and running today even with a shutdown of the federal government.

Although Obamacare – formally known as the Affordable Care Act – has many features, the heart of the law is a mandate that every American buy health insurance. People with average or below-average incomes can get a subsidy for buying insurance through the state exchange.

And there’s a tax penalty for people who remain uninsured. But the first year, the fine is only $95 – less than the cheapest plan offered through the exchange.

In Montezuma County, five insurance companies are offering individual plans through the exchange, and five more are offering small-business plans. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees can shop for coverage in the exchange.

Rates will vary for each person. Sample rates for a 40-year-old, depending on the quality of coverage, range from $278 to $683 a month before the subsidy. The policies offer varying levels of coverage, but they all include an annual physical with no co-payment, “Small-business owners will be able to start looking at plans in the exchange and make decisions,” said Tony Gagliardi, head of the National Federation of Independent Business’ Colorado chapter. “Hopefully, we’re going to start seeing a lot more options for small businesses and their employees.”

Gagliardi and the NFIB do not have a reputation as being friendly to Democrats, and Gagliardi doesn’t like a lot about the Affordable Care Act. He regrets that the association of Colorado’s insurance exchange with Obamacare made it a “political hot potato,” to the point that some business owners won’t take advantage of it.

“I’ve had people say, ‘I want no part of it, because it is part of the Affordable Care Act,’” Gagliardi said.

Colorado is one of 17 states to set up its own insurance exchange. The federal government will run the exchanges in the rest of the states.

The idea of an online health-insurance market was popular with many Republican lawmakers long before President Barack Obama started pushing for a national health-care law.

The state Legislature approved Colorado’s health-insurance exchange on a bipartisan vote in 2011. But the debate sharply divided Republicans, with tea party members opposing then-House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who sponsored the bill and said it would be good for small businesses.

For policies purchased through the exchange, coverage will start Jan. 1. 2014.

Open enrollment in Connect for Health Colorado ends in March 2014. Starting next year, the annual open enrollment period will be from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15.

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