OLYMPIA – Washington will receive a financial reward for forging ahead with one element of federal health care reform this spring while many other states were holding back.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department said Wednesday it will award Washington a $128 million grant to set up its Health Benefit Exchange, a place where small businesses and individuals can shop for health care coverage and compare different plans about as easily as they can shop online for airline tickets on Expedia or Priceline.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said the grant is a sign Washington is “a leader in the nation in this field.”
Medical insurance exchanges are a key element of federal health care reform, and the federal law says all states must have their own by 2014 or accept a system the federal government sets up. While the concept has support in both political parties, some Republican legislators argued earlier this year that the state was moving too fast into uncertain territory because the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – called Obamacare by some of its critics – is constitutional.
If the law is overturned, they argued, some of the requirements the federal government is setting for health care exchanges could be scrapped.
Democrats, however, said the time needed to set up the exchange and make sure it is working properly before it opens to consumers in October 2013 meant the state couldn’t wait. At the urging of Gregoire, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and the state’s two U.S. senators, Democrats pushed through legislation that expanded the exchange and put it on track for the deadlines set by the federal government.
The legislation did require the exchange to be “self-sustaining,” or operations could be suspended, in part because state officials were counting on significant financial aid from the federal government.
On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced six states would get a total of $181 million in grants to set up their exchanges. Five were getting smaller amounts to get their exchanges started, while Washington was getting $128 million because it was further along in the process.
The money goes directly to the agency designing the exchange, not into the state’s General Fund, so it doesn’t affect the state’s overall budget picture, a spokeswoman for Gregoire said Wednesday.