By Tia Mitchell
Since 2008, Florida has been promising its residents a state-run health insurance exchange. Republican lawmakers continued to champion the much-delayed program even as they opposed Obamacare and refused to expand Medicaid to help the working poor.
Now, officials say they are at last ready to launch Florida Health Choices and hope to reach people who can't afford insurance on the federal exchange, or just don't like the president's plan.
But don't expect full-coverage insurance policies -- think more along the lines of pharmacy discount cards and limited dental plans.
Leaders of the effort won't even say exactly when they're opening for business, other than to say they're "just days away." The web address is www.FloridaHealthChoices.net -- but it isn't yet functioning.
Blame at least some of the vagueness on jitters over the prospect of yet another botched government website after the Obamacare and Florida unemployment site rollouts.
"[We are] taking it slow and not reaching out too aggressively until we know everybody's on and everything is working well," said chief executive officer Rose Naff, a veteran of the Florida Healthy Kids Corporation.
Her target audience includes roughly 800,000 people caught in the coverage gap because they make too much to qualify for Florida's bare bones Medicaid plan, but too little to qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance on the federal marketplace. Other customers could be people opposed to the Affordable Care Act or those who miss the spring enrollment deadline and find themselves shopping for other options later in the year.
But the offerings on Florida Health Choices won't be comprehensive enough to meet federal standards. Major insurers like Humana and Florida Blue are not signed on to Florida Health Choices for now.
And if you are required to have insurance under the federal law, these products won't save you from a possible federal fine.
To start off, Florida Health Choices will offer eight discount plans from two companies -- Careington International Corp., based near Dallas, and Coverdell and Co. of Chicago -- that cover services on an a la carte basis like prescription drugs, dental care and Lasik eye surgery. Depending on the number of benefits covered, these plans cost between $6 and $25 a month. That's a fraction of what comprehensive insurance costs, and the quality reflects that difference, noted Greg Mellowe, policy director at Florida CHAIN, a consumer advocacy organization.
"These products do not provide comprehensive coverage in any way, shape or form -- in many cases, they aren't coverage at all," he said via email. "At best, they'll look something like a set of visits for a service (e.g., chiropractic services) that may not be covered by someone's regular health plan."
Once the website is fully operational in an estimated three or four months, it will include more discount plan vendors, limited benefit plans and pre-paid healthcare programs, Naff said.
That is when marketing will begin in earnest. Naff's goal is to have 67,000 customers within the first year, which is what Florida Health Choices predicts it needs to break even without additional state funding.
Former state Sen. Durell Peaden, chairman of the Florida Health Choices board, said that even if the offerings are far from comprehensive insurance, they can still fill a need for people who aren't look for full coverage or who want plans to address what their regular insurance doesn't.
"Efficiency is, I think, what we all need and [we are] making people more aware that there are insurances and there are sources that will make their lives a little more pleasant and the security of their home and health a little more viable," Peaden said.
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