Gill: With policy cancellations looming in 2014, state needs to do better job educating consumers

TRENTON – A leading advocate of the thwarted attempt to have the state operate the health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act believes the state is not doing enough to educate the 800,000 residents whose noncompliant policies are going to be canceled next year.

And what little the state has done actually may have been counterproductive in terms of consumer awareness, according to Sen. Nia Gill, (D-34), Montclair, who convened her Commerce Committee Thursday to examine the ramifications on those people.

“Whatever is done, the consumer needs to be informed.  They need to know in advance for their health care options,’’ Gill said after hearing Ken Kobylowski, the head of the Banking and Insurance Department, explain why the state decided not to force health insurers to maintain health insurance policies next year despite their being in noncompliance under ACA.

President Obama, recognizing the bureaucratic nightmare that ACA has become, urged states last month to consider such a transitional option. New Jersey last week decided to leave the call up to the insurers.

He told the committee today that so far as he knew, not one insurer had yet chosen to maintain the so-called basic and essential plans.

He told the lawmakers that back in 2010 the department had expressed its concerns to the federal officials about grandfathering policies.  

“Choice has long been a cornerstone of the American insurance industry.  Mandating specific coverage levels removes that choice,” Kobylowski said.

But Gill kept focusing on that 2010 opinion of the Banking department for another reason, pointing out that the state said then it did not believe that employers should be required to provide notice of the grandfather option to employees, and as a consequence not informing employees that such grandfathered policies would exclude consumer protections provided in other plans.

Kobylowski disputed her characterization of the state’s position. “We were pointing out to the federal government that your own rules are self-defeating… if the purpose was to allow plans to be grandfathered,’’ he said.

Another witness, John Jacobi, a health law professor at Seton Hall University, told the committee that actually, in his view it would have been unlawful for the state to require insurance companies to maintain those noncompliant policies.

“If (Kobylowski) had required insurance companies to renew it would have violated the plain language of the ACA,’’ he said.

On another issue, Gill also pressed Kobylowski on whether the state will use $7.6 million left in a federal grant as part of a public outreach to educate consumers, and he only would say the department was in “active’’ discussions with Washington, D.C. about usage of those funds.

After the hearing, Gill was clear that she feels the Christie administration has not done nearly enough to protect the interests of consumers.

“We will continue to explore the impact of the department’s decision,” she said.  “This is not the end of our conversation. We must wait for the decisions from the insurance companies and we will work to ensure the state and insurers provide the transparency that is needed so New Jersey consumers can be educated about their health care options.”

Gill has been at odds with the Christie administration over the ACA and its elements.  She wanted the state to operate the health care exchange marketplace, but Christie opted to let the federal officials operate it.

Earlier stories:

Advocates: Healthy dose of information needed on ACA

Christie: Obama should tell American people truth about ACA

Gill: With policy cancellations looming in 2014, state needs to do better job educating consumers