LANSING (AP) – The man responsible for creating a new statewide health exchange required by federal law said Friday he’s ready to go around the Legislature if Republicans won’t allow him to start work on the project.
State Licensing and Regulatory Affairs director Steve Hilfinger said the state needs lawmakers to authorize the use of $9.8 million in federal funds so it can start planning the exchange, which would help small businesses and individuals compare private health insurance plans on a special website and buy the one best for them.
Hilfinger was given the task of creating the exchange by Gov. Rick Snyder, but he’s run into a roadblock put up by House Speaker Jase Bolger and other House Republicans. After the GOP-led Senate passed a spending bill authorizing the state to spend the money, the GOP-led House stripped out that approval this week, leaving the planning process in limbo.
Snyder has warned lawmakers the federal government will step in with its own health exchange plan if Michigan doesn’t have one in place by January 2013.
But Bolger and others opposed to the federal health care law many deride as “Obamacare” say there’s plenty of time to act once the U.S. Supreme Court considers the law’s legality. The court has agreed to hear arguments this spring on whether the government has the power to force people to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty in 2015. It’s expected to issue its ruling by the Fourth of July.
“The speaker has said there is no need to act on creating a health exchange until we have the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, because that could make the whole situation moot,” Bolger spokesman Ari Adler said Friday. “We would still have plenty of time to address this.”
Hilfinger said the wheels need to start turning now so the state has something to show the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by the deadline.
“If we wait until June to move forward on that, the odds of us being able to satisfy HHS that we have an exchange in place … would be virtually nonexistent,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to lose six months of planning time and seal our fate with a federal exchange. That would be devastating for Michigan.”
Many Republican lawmakers don’t like the health care law and are leery of backing the exchange because so many tea partiers oppose it. On Tuesday, members of the Hartland-based RetakeOurGov Tea Party hand-delivered Christmas stockings containing lumps of coal to 13 Republican senators – including Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville – who voted for a bill that authorized setting up the exchange.
“Given its symbolic meaning, it is very fitting that coal be given to Republican senators who ignored the wishes of their constituents,” group Treasurer Wes Nakagiri said in a release.
Hilfinger said lawmakers’ refusal to approve the exchange “isn’t based on logic or time lines.” He’s now exploring other legal channels to get authorization to spend the money, although he didn’t say specifically what those channels might be.
“Nothing has been ruled out,” he said.
It’s unlikely Hilfinger can turn to Attorney General Bill Schuette for a favorable opinion authorizing spending the money. Schuette has joined officials in 25 other states in a lawsuit challenging the federal health care changes.
States have to put in a request for a new round of federal planning money by June 30, so Michigan risks being turned down for additional money if it hasn’t done anything with the first $9.8 million grant by then, Hilfinger said. The money in both rounds can be used for many purposes, including deciding what kind of technology the online exchange will use.
The governor estimates half a million uninsured Michigan residents will buy private coverage starting in 2014 through the exchange, which is designed to create competition among insurers and make insurance more accessible and more affordable.
Many other states where Republicans hold sway have approved spending the federal grants, Hilfinger said.
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