Guest Columns

HUDSON: MARKETPLACE SOON TO OPEN

Fontneau and Colorado Health Exchange are ready to connect with Colorado

The Colorado Statesman

“…Eight,7, 6, 5, Connect4Health, 3, 2 — October 1 and the Colorado Health Exchange will open for business whether you’re ready or not!” They seem to be sales ready and politically bulletproof. Even if Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are successful in shutting down the federal government over funding of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare will continue to unspool in Colorado. As one of the states organizing its own health insurance marketplace, Connect4Health Colorado’s money is in the bank and there will be no strangling of this baby in the cradle. You may have seen their billboard ads on the side of buses or caught their pitch on the “telly”: insurance company competition will make you a winner.

A tour of the Exchange Call Center in Colorado Springs revealed an open bullpen with 187 computer stations. Refurbished in a pre-fab, concrete panel office park that’s been sitting empty for several years, the precise address is not being released as a security precaution. No, there haven’t been any threats, but eventually hundreds of thousands of personal records will be stored on Exchange servers. Better to keep their heads down. The build-out for what will eventually be a workforce of 250 employees cost $3 million dollars. It’s state-of-the-art design: white noise generators, acoustic baffles and faster than snot data lines. Sixty employees are already on-line providing background information and answers to the curious in both English and Spanish. The remainder are in training, or still being hired. The call center will also have access to specialists who can handle 173 additional languages from Azeri to Urdu.

Salaries range from $11 per hour in the mailroom to $20 for tech specialists. When asked if the center had been located in the Springs as a “wet kiss” to the Legislature’s House sponsor, Amy Stephens, we were assured it had been an impartial search for the best available deal. Ben Davis of OnSight Public Affairs, which managed Governor Hickenlooper’s last campaign, declared, “We don’t do quid pro quo politics.” That was good for a grin, as he and his partner, Mike Melanson, not only hold the Connect4Health contract but will also be managing the school funding initiative on this November’s ballot. Merit alone, I’m sure, was the determinative factor in both selections. Let’s call this an air kiss to Amy. And well deserved too. A smoothly functioning Exchange is the critical component in expanding health coverage across Colorado.

Patty Fontneau, executive director of Connect4Health

Patty Fontneau, the executive director of Connect4Health, has proven an inspired hire. Although there was a minor kerfuffle when it was revealed she would be paid more than $200,000 a year, it turns out it has been money well spent. In any event, Colorado is one of the 32 states where the highest paid public employee is a football or basketball coach, usually both, so that might be a better place to direct concern regarding taxpayer dollars. With a background in finance and as the business manager of a major law firm, she brings a clear-eyed discipline to the tasks at hand. Her predominantly female team obviously admires her immensely and works long hours to ensure a successful outcome. Birthing a different delivery model for nearly 20 percent of the economy isn’t something you sketch out on a cocktail napkin. It requires intense scrutiny and deliberation.

It is rumored that Fontneau thought her governing board would be a transitional nuisance, or, at worst, merely the rubberstamp so common in the corporate sector. To the contrary, the Board has helped shape both the direction and scope of the organization. An insistence on outreach has resulted in buy in from insurance brokers, providers and business coalitions. Board Chair Gretchen Hammer has brought the same discipline and efficiency to Board deliberations that Fontneau has to the staff. Meetings start on time and generally end early. Despite Tea Party charges of a government takeover of health care, state exchanges are nothing more than centralized, private insurance marketplaces.

Thirteen hundred brokers have completed certification training and more than 2,000 will be ready to assist clients in making insurance purchases through the Exchange by the first of January. More than 500 different plans have been filed and registered with the Insurance Commission and virtually everyone is looking forward with anticipation to the launch of Connect4Health. Hundreds of human resource managers across the state have been briefed on their options. This is a discombobulating contrast with national poll results that tell of widespread confusion, discontent and concern about Obamacare Colorado may be different. My stepson, who just turned 27, is anxious to get reinsured. Small businesses are excited about the SHOP options available to them. Critics charge that Obamacare is merely a stalking horse for the commoditization of hospital services — that the family doctor will be pushed into corporatized practices. Even if true, it is not clear this would be an altogether bad thing.

Fontneau is careful not to let herself be pulled into commenting on the politics of health care reform. She stays laser focused on the task she was assigned.“This is about providing health coverage and choices to Colorado families. If parents find they can insure themselves and their kids at a price they can afford, then we’ve done our job,” she observes.

It won’t be easy. It’s terribly complicated. Premium subsidies have to be approved by the IRS. Confidential health records have to be transferred, and the Exchange must coordinate with a handful of existing agencies. 18 months ago all this looked nearly impossible. At Connect4Health Colorado, the troops don’t appear frantic — more like the cat that ate the canary, they are grinning because they think they’re ready. Ultimately, the judgment on Obamacare will be made by the Colorado families who have been running bare, petrified that someone in the family will fall ill or be injured. To them, it won’t matter what the politicians think or say.

Miller Hudson is a columnist for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.