With Federal Insurance Sign-Ups Set to Begin, State Will Still Play Oversight Role

Andrew Kitchenman | September 12, 2013 | Health Care
Task force will make sure NJ residents have smooth access to coverage as ACA registration starts October 1

Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex)
When New Jersey residents begin buying health insurance in a few weeks through the new federal marketplace or exchange, federal officials will be deciding which plans are available.

But if a new legislative task force has its say, the state will still play a role.

While Gov. Chris Christie decided in February to have a federal exchange after vetoing new bills that would have created a state exchange, the Legislature passed a resolution creating a task force to oversee the federal marketplace.

A central feature of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the marketplace, or exchange, is a website where residents and small businesses will be able to purchase insurance and learn whether they are eligible for subsidies. Enrollment will begin on October 1 for coverage starting on January 1, 2014.

The legislative task force is now beginning to take shape, with 10 of its 12 members announced this week. While its first meeting hasn’t been announced, Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) said it’s important that the group begin meeting soon. Its mission is to ensure that the marketplace works in the state.

“Let’s make sure that the 1.3 million uninsured and even business owners in the state have access to the product, or even are aware of it,” said Vitale, one of the 12 legislators who will serve on the task force.

Christie cited the potential cost of operating a state-run exchange, as well as a lack of information from federal officials in response to a series of questions from him and other Republican governors, in explaining why he opted for a federal exchange. His decision has been criticized by some healthcare activists, who noted that the state has received tens of millions of dollars less than it would have had if it had pursued a state-run exchange.

Vitale said legislators have a responsibility to provide oversight to make sure New Jersey residents are able to access insurance through the federal marketplace, even if Christie doesn’t want a state role in running it.

“It’s clear that the governor couldn’t care less about the Affordable Care Act and that’s his decision,” Vitale said, adding that Christie’s decision doesn’t lessen the importance of the task force.

Federal officials have said that states that have opted for a federally run marketplace could decide later to switch to a state-run exchange. Vitale said the task force could recommend such a reversal, but then added: “The governor surely wouldn’t support it.”

“In the mean time, we have to focus on what we have at hand, which is a law that could benefit many New Jerseyans, and we have to make sure that it happens properly,” Vitale said.

Some Republican legislators have expressed skepticism that the task force will accomplish much.

Assemblywoman Nancy F. Munoz (R-Summit) said she voted against the resolution establishing the task force earlier this year because she saw it as a different way for Democratic legislators to say they disagree with Christie’s decision.

“We are going to let it go to the feds, so my feeling was it created a system that wasn’t necessary,” Munoz said. “I couldn’t see why we needed to set up this task force.”

Nevertheless, Munoz said she has many concerns about the law and questioned whether members of Congress truly understood the consequences of what they were voting for in 2010.

“I don’t think people understand the bill,” she said.

Task force resolution sponsor Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) said in a statement that the law’s complexity makes the task force even more necessary.

“We need to monitor the implementation strategy for a state health insurance exchange now, and this task force will be a voice for the people to make sure it’s done right,” he said.

Fellow sponsor Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Essex and Passaic), who will also be a task force member, said in a statement that the Legislature must be informed about the marketplace since the ACA provides for states to take over its management.

“This task force will allow the Legislature to track progress of the marketplace and to respond legislatively if necessary,” she said.

The task force – officially named the Joint Legislative Task Force on Health Insurance Exchange Implementation – includes the four chairpersons of the legislative committees that oversee health and insurance issues, as well as eight members appointed by the leaders of both parties in each legislative house.

On Tuesday, the Democrats announced that Sen. Fred H. Madden (D-Camden and Gloucester), Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), Gill, Vitale, Conaway, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden and Gloucester), Assemblyman Gary Schaer (Bergen and Passaic) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (Bergen) would be on the committee. Senate Republican officials said yesterday that Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Atlantic, Burlington and Camden) and Sen. Samuel Thompson (Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean) would be their members, while Assembly Republican spokesman said their members would be named shortly.