Shopping for your health insurance plan, Travelocity.com style, is about to become a reality.
The Utah Health Exchange, a Web site where individuals and businesses can compare and buy health plans, is going live Aug. 19.
A cornerstone of the state's health reform plans, the Utah Health Exchange marks the beginning of a defined contribution market, portable health coverage -- and giving Utahns more of a say in their health care.
Only the second health insurance exchange to be developed in the country -- Massachusetts pioneered the first -- the Utah Health Exchange was created by HB 188. Signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in March, it's one of four health reform bills designed to improve the affordability and accessibility of policies, and make the market more transparent.
The Utah Health Exchange, said House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, "is one of the seminal moments in that health reform" that will help move the state toward its goal of containing costs and making health care more accessible to nearly 300,000 people.
As part of HB 188, employers will have the option of depositing money into their workers' health savings accounts -- instead of just paying a portion of their premium -- allowing them to buy any plan they want.
On its launch day, the Utah Health Exchange will begin enrolling up to 150 small employer groups -- those with between two and 50 workers -- who intend to offer their workers this option.
Then, in early November, their workers will be able to log on with a pin number and pick the plan they like best. If they don't elect one, they'll be enrolled in a default plan chosen by their employer. Their coverage will begin Jan. 1.
"Our hope is it empowers consumers, or patients, to see the system and have skin in the game and make choices that influence the market," said Natalie Gochnour, chief operating officer of the Salt Lake Chamber.
The defined-contribution option also will be available to large employer groups, but not until late 2011. The two-year gap between enrollments will allow time for technical, outreach and customer service bugs to be worked out.
"The folks who are hurting most are the small-group market," said Cheryl Smith, strategic plan development manager for the state's Office of Consumer Health Services. "Those guys are hemorrhaging cash and Utah is a small business state, so let's take care of [them] first."
The defined contribution market, she said, is a win-win for employers and workers.
Small employers that couldn't otherwise afford to offer their workers benefits will now be able to put some money toward their health insurance. A recent survey of small businesses in the state showed only 40 percent are able to offer their employees health insurance. And most of those, or 79 percent, are struggling to pay for it.
"Right now their options are pay for the entire thing or pay for nothing," Smith said.
Workers, in turn, can couple that contribution from their employer with some government assistance -- or a spouse's contribution from their employer -- and have enough to buy a basic plan. This is especially important for the state's part-time workers, most of whom don't qualify for benefits.
"Most of our part-time workers have more than one part-time job. So they're working full-time hours and never qualify for insurance," Smith said.
Another important feature of the exchange: workers who purchase their coverage through it will be able to keep it, even if they leave a job. Because HB 188 requires the state's insurance carriers to accept payment from multiple sources, Utahns can pay for their health insurance with money from different employers.
Individuals and families who don't get insurance through an employer, meanwhile, also can hop on the Utah Health Exchange Aug. 19 and buy a plan straight from a carrier -- or locate a broker near them who can help them do it.
They can also do their own side-by-side comparisons. In a format similar to Travelocity.com, the Utah Health Exchange will display basic information for a number of plans, such as deductibles and copays, and how much the premiums cost. Premiums currently range from $147 to $477 a month for a family of four. Clicking on a plan reveals more specific details about the coverage.
Initially, the Utah Health Exchange will feature plans offered by four carriers -- Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah; UnitedHealthcare; SelectHealth and Humana. While each is required by state law to offer at least two plans, it's expected they'll offer more. Daniel Schuyler, project manager and technical advisor for the Office of Consumer Health Services, estimates between 24 and 36 plans will be available by the Web site's launch date.
The Utah Health Exchange is expected to grow to include more insurance plans -- and features.
Utahns will eventually be able to plug in their income level and family size to see if they may be eligible for public health insurance programs such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP.) They'll also be able access information about the cost and quality of health care.