INTERVIEW BY AMANDA WALDROUPE
Rocky King, executive director of Cover Oregon.
// Photo by Adam Wickham
Howard “Rocky” King is the executive director of Cover Oregon, Oregon’s health insurance exchange. Starting January 1, 2014, Cover Oregon will allow uninsured individuals and small businesses to choose a variety of health plans via an online enrollment program. The hope is that increased competition and availability of federal tax credits will make health insurance more affordable, both for small employers and their employees. King and his staff have been working around the clock to prepare for open enrollment, which begins October 1. Cover Oregon expects approximately 50,000 people to enroll through small businesses by January.
When Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed King to be Cover Oregon’s first executive director, no one was surprised. King has worked in insurance and health policy his entire life, including as administrator of the Office of Private Health Partnerships and the Oregon Medical Insurance Pool. Gregarious and light-hearted, he is always quick with a joke or story in conversation. But when it comes to health care policy, he is passionate and dedicated.
The lowdown. “We’re going to provide an opportunity that includes a variety of options for the employer and especially for their employees. If they’re providing health insurance, it’s because employers want to retain employees, they want to make employees more productive or they want to recruit more people.”
More choice, less hassle. “Right now, in the small-employer market, you’re not given a choice between different plans or different carriers. They all have to go to the same plan. [The exchange] gives employers an opportunity to offer employees more choices. With the exchange, you could have [different employees] going to Kaiser or Health Net or Providence. So the exchange benefits the business. It helps attract and keep good people. And the worst thing [employers tell us about] is employee turnover. Secondly, the employer is going to get one bill. They’re not going to be billed by every carrier.”
Educating owners. “We’ve teamed up with various business associations to get information out to businesses. In September we presented in front of the Small Business Association. Business associations are applying for community grants we’re offering. We work really closely with Jan Meekcoms of the National Federation of Independent Business and Associated Oregon Industries. We’ve trained over 2,000 insurance agents so that we’ll be ready to start doing outreach to business owners.”
Enrolling online. “I think when everyone was dreaming about this, they were thinking it would be like buying a book on Amazon. But it’s more like doing Turbo Tax long form. There’s no way around the complexities associated with purchasing health insurance, determining eligibility based on income and the variety of choices people are going to have. In the smaller employer market, an employee is going to have 80 plan choices. That’s a very complicated process.”
Saving money. “Some businesses will save money through tax credits. Small businesses with fewer than 25 employees or nonprofits will be eligible to get a tax credit equaling 50% of their premium. Then you get into the concept of the exchange as a whole. In Oregon, we’re seeing a greater competition because of the number of carriers that are participating in the exchange. But in order to see out-of-pocket costs and premiums go down significantly, how we deliver health care has to change. The exchange brings in some competition, brings in some financial assistance, but it doesn’t drive new technology or care models that focus more on health and outcomes rather than episodic care and visits. The exchange is part of a support [system] to help us get there.”
Reinvigorating the market. “Small employers have been exiting the market to some degree because the cost increases have been more than what many of them can bear. If you’re faced with 15%, 20% or 25% increases year after year, you can’t afford the coverage. I want to make it a more stable market than it is today. Are there some small employers who, with this model, would come in? If we set up an exchange and it has 25% increases for the next five years, we haven’t done anything. We’re trying to figure out how we can impact the growth of health care costs. That’s the future of the exchange.”