Time is running out for state insurance officials to reach an agreement with the federal government on how to spend $7.67 million in funds from the Affordable Care Act, and two members of Congress from New Jersey are urging quick action.
The state was awarded the money in 2012 to set up and operate a health insurance exchange; some of the money was to go to improving information technology and gathering input from stakeholders. But Gov. Chris Christie opted instead for a federal marketplace.
While advocates for increasing health access have expressed confidence that federal officials would allow the state to spend the money to promote the marketplace, state and federal officials have been in talks for nearly a year over how the money can be used. New Jersey officials have declined to publicly identify how they want to spend the money, but Christie’s dim view of the marketplace raises the possibility that he wants to funnel the money into other programs.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-West Windsor) have joined healthcare advocates in calling for the money to be spent on outreach to increase awareness of the insurance that’s newly available to residents as a result of the ACA.
Christie decided against a state-run exchange, opting instead to have the federal government operate its insurance marketplace in the state. Ever since that decision, state Department of Banking and Insurance (DOBI) officials have been in talks with the federal government on how the money can be spent.
Pascrell introduced the Ensuring Full Use of Federal Health Care Funding Act, which would allow federal officials to redirect unspent Affordable Care Act grants to states that refuse to spend the money.
According to Pascrell and Holt, the state will lose access to the money if it isn’t spent by February 20. Instead, it would revert to the federal treasury. Federal officials didn’t respond to a request to confirm the deadline yesterday.
Pascrell, a member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, said he was frustrated that Christie failed to respond to repeated requests about the money.
“While he chooses not to spend this money, healthcare advocacy organizations in New Jersey that did not receive federal funding are stretching their already tight budgets to engage in education and enrollment activities to help make up for the governor’s inaction,” Pascrell said in a statement.
“This is unacceptable,” he continued Our governor, and Republican governors all across the country that oppose the ACA, are sitting on money to help educate people about a law that will provide meaningful benefits and affordable coverage for Americans. My bill will allow us to work around their willful obstruction.”
The state received $7,674,130 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on February 22, 2012, to plan for an insurance exchange.
DOBI spokesman Marshall McKnight noted yesterday that the grant was for planning, not promotion, and thus spending it for any other purpose requires federal approval. “DOBI continues to talk with HHS on appropriate use of these funds,” McKnight wrote in an email.
Holt noted in a letter he sent to Christie that the governor referred to a lack of funding to increase access to healthcare in his state of the state address. In the speech, Christie said that because the state is scheduled to spend nearly $1 billion on pensions in the next fiscal year, it won’t be able to afford to spend on other priorities, noting that the money “won’t be available to improve access to healthcare.”
But Holt said it was wrong for Christie to say that the state can’t afford to spend more to increase access to healthcare when it can use the $7.67 million.
“As you know, this is false,” Holt wrote of Christie’s claim that the state lacks the funds to increase access to healthcare. , adding that Christie only needs to “act to claim the money.”
Holt had sent Christie a similar letter in August. “Especially at a time of state budget constraints, we must take advantage of every dollar available to us to keep New Jerseyans healthy,” he wrote.
Healthcare advocates have been asking for the money to be spent to advertise the marketplace since last spring.