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Health insurance companies and states get ready for exchanges Posted: May 30th, 2013

By Maryalene LaPonsie

Beginning in October, consumers will have a new way to shop for health insurance. Exchanges, envisioned as a type of online marketplace, will debut with the intent of offering individuals and small businesses access to affordable health insurance.

The exchanges are mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and will be available in every state. Those earning up to 400 percent of the poverty limit will be eligible for government subsidies to offset their premiums. Although insurance coverage through the online marketplaces won't become effective until January 2014, enrollment in the offered health insurance plans begins this October.

For consumers, the exchanges represent a new way of shopping and buying health insurance coverage. With the opening day of the exchanges drawing near, both insurers and states appear busy preparing.

Helping consumers navigate changes

With consumers expected to have questions regarding the exchanges, some health insurance companies have taken steps to help them navigate their new choices. For example, Regence, a Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate serving Oregon, Utah, Idaho and parts of Washington, has announced a new informational website healthcareandreform.com.

The site has information broken down for different categories of consumers including families, small businesses and large businesses. Visitors can learn more about the health reform law, its provisions and the financial assistance available to those seeking low cost health insurance.

Voter registration through health insurance exchanges

While medical insurance companies may be working to educate consumers, some states may be considering how they can use the exchanges to promote other services. Since the health reform law requires most individuals to maintain health insurance coverage by 2014, governments may find exchanges a convenient way to reach a significant portion of their population.

The California Secretary of State recently approved the state's health insurance exchange, known as Covered California, as a voter registration agency. According to Senator Alex Padilla who sponsored the bill that paved the way for the SOS action, there are some 5.8 million Californians who are eligible to vote but not currently registered.

"With Senate Bill 35, we have a streamlined opportunity to register millions of eligible Californians when they apply for benefits, not just through Covered California, but in over a dozen state agencies that offer public services in offices throughout the state," said Padilla in a written statement.

The Regence website and California voter registration initiative are just two of the ways insurers and states are gearing up for the day when health insurance exchanges become reality.