New Mexico to continue with federally operated health insurance exchange

New Mexico decided Friday to stick with a federal online system for another year to enroll individuals in health insurance plans.

The state's health insurance exchange governing board voted 11-1 to continue using the federal computer system for determining eligibility and to enroll individuals starting in November when the next open enrollment begins.

A majority of board members worried that New Mexico wasn't ready to switch to a state-run online system for individuals. Any technical failures could delay enrollment and discourage consumers from trying to obtain health coverage, they said.

Continuing with the federal system for another year is the "safest, most risk-free" way of enrolling New Mexicans, New Mexico Health Connections CEO Martin Hickey said.

Small businesses have been using the state system since October.

The exchange serves as online, one-stop shopping center for individuals and businesses to buy health coverage from private insurance companies. Premiums are subsidized for low- and middle-income residents.

New Mexico has been using the federal online system since the state launched its exchange last year. However, technical problems plagued the startup of the federal system.

Board vice chairman Jason Sandel of Farmington supported moving to the state online system.

"If we wait for perfection, we will never get anything done," Sandel said.

He expressed frustration that the state would remain subject to federal decision-making on enrollment and exchange operations "rather than being in control of our own future."

Exchange staff and its technology vendors said testing of a beefed-up online system was underway, and the state's computer operation for individual enrollment should be ready by November.

"We are on track to provide the desired product," said acting exchange CEO Mike Nunez.

But several members wanted a greater assurance that the online system would succeed.

"I believe we should not move forward with an individual market in this state until all testing has been done, all problem solving has been proven — not promised that they are solved," said Dr. J. Deane Waldman, a University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center professor.

The board was told it wasn't possible to have a call center fully operating by the start of the enrollment period Nov. 15. The state contracts with a private vendor for that service.

An official representing Gov. Susana Martinez's administration supported the decision to stay with the federal marketplace.

"There are a huge number of pieces in play that are not settled," said Matt Kennicott of the Human Services Department. "We can't afford another disaster."

New Mexico initially set a target of enrolling about 80,000 people in insurance plans through the exchange, but the state governing board later trimmed that to 40,000 to 50,000 because of the problems consumers initially encountered with the federal system.

Nearly 35,000 New Mexicans signed up for insurance plans offered by private insurers through the federal online marketplace through mid-April, according to the state insurance superintendent's office.