November 28, 2012

State posts a job, sparks a mystery

It's to coordinate a health insurance exchange, which Gov. LePage has previously sworn not to implement.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A job posting on Maine's state government website is mystifying some officials who are concerned about the planned expansion of health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Two weeks after Gov. Paul LePage announced that he wouldn't implement an online exchange to help eligible Mainers find federally subsidized insurance plans, the state's human resources website has a posting for a management position to create and oversee such an exchange.

The posting for a "health exchange coordinator" confused several state officials who have long expected that Mainers would have to use the federal exchange, known as the Health Plan Finder, which is scheduled to go online before Oct. 1, 2013.

"I thought (the job posting) was a joke when I first saw it," said state Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, ranking minority member of the Legislature's Insurance and Financial Services Committee.

Her proposal for a state insurance exchange was shot down by the Republican-dominated Legislature in March.

"It's so bizarre," Treat said. "I really can't speculate on what (the job posting) means. A week ago, the governor wasn't going to lift a finger. Now this? It's too late to build consensus, develop a state model and create a state exchange. We can't do a rush job. At this point, it has to be the federal exchange."

The job opening was posted Nov. 20. Five days earlier, LePage sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying that Maine wouldn't create its own exchange because, in part, the state "will not be complicit in the degradation of our nation's premier health care system."

The governor's office did not respond Tuesday to a request for an explanation.

Officials in Maine's Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Professional and Financial Regulation initially said they knew nothing about the posting.

According to the posting, the person hired for the job would report directly to Anne Head, commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

The posting says the health exchange coordinator will prepare a legislative proposal to "authorize the establishment of the exchange" and will evaluate and recommend "a health insurance exchange model for Maine."

But Doug Dunbar, Head's legislative liaison, said Tuesday evening that the coordinator won't be responsible for developing a state health insurance exchange. He said the position has been planned for some time and will have much broader duties, to ensure overall coordination of reforms from the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"This position will report to commissioners of both departments and will serve as a liaison between the two departments as the Affordable Care Act and other health care reform measures are implemented," Head said in a written statement issued Tuesday evening.

"This position is important to ensuring that communication between the two departments is effective, duplication of effort is avoided, and statutory implementation timelines are observed," she said. "The position will also be responsible for the planning and initiation of other health reform initiatives in consultation with both commissioners."

The deadline to apply is Thursday. The relatively short, nine-day application period, including the long Thanksgiving weekend, led some to wonder whether the LePage administration has a particular candidate in mind.

"It's very strange," said Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Democrats. "It contradicts what the governor said just before Thanksgiving. It's surprising to see an advertisement for a position that he said wasn't necessary. The ship has sailed on us having a state exchange, for now."

Quintero said there is talk among some Republicans and among Democrats, who regained majorities in the House and Senate in this month's elections, about establishing a state health insurance exchange in the future to ensure more local oversight.

It's unclear how the position, with an annual salary range of $58,926 to $81,182, will be funded. Treat noted that the LePage administration has already returned about $6 million in federal money that was allocated to help Maine establish a state health insurance exchange.

Without a state exchange, Treat said, it will be critical for Maine to establish a seamless connection between the federal exchange and MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program. About half of the states plan to use the federal exchange, she said.

New coverage options under the Affordable Care Act will take effect Jan. 1, 2014, subsidizing as much as 80 percent of health insurance costs for qualified people who don't have insurance, Treat said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

CORRECTION: This story was updated Wednesday, Nov. 28 to reflect the correct spelling of Anne Head's name. Head is the commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

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