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Colorado’s Insurance Commissioner Braces For Bumps In The Road

Colorado, which is preparing for the Oct. 1 launch of its new online insurance marketplace, expects bumps in the road as residents start enrolling in new health coverage options created by the Affordable Care Act.

“We’re going to have 500,000 new customers,” said Marguerite Salazar, the state’s new insurance commissioner, during an Aug. 19 interview – her second day on the job. “Just think of how many possibilities there are for things to go wrong there.”

She has great faith in the staff she’s now leading at Colorado’s Division of Insurance, she said, but is realistic about the big changes that are coming.

“We know it’s not going to be just a completely smooth transition as people who have never had insurance buy it and try to figure out how to use it. … Also, insurance companies, which are not used to dealing with people who are previously uninsured, are going to find themselves having different issues with their customers. The Division of insurance is going to step up to make sure we can help both sides,” Salazar said.

It remains to be seen whether 500,000 Coloradans will actually heed the health law’s requirement that most people have insurance in 2014. The CEO of the state exchange is estimating closer to 200,000 enrollees in its first year. Still, the state has a relatively well-funded outreach and enrollment campaign because it’s one of 17 states that agreed to set up its own health insurance exchange. Those states have received substantial federal funding for public education, and Colorado’s effort is getting support from private foundations as well.

Skeptics, like Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., doubt the law will roll out as planned.

“This thing is now heading for a train wreck,” he told hundreds of constituents at a town hall meeting in mid-August. He cited the Obama administration’s July order delaying the ACA’s employer mandate as evidence the implementation of the law is foundering.

But Salazar is confident that Colorado will at least have a functioning exchange by the October deadline. She kept a close eye on the process in the job she just left, as regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“When I was at the federal level, I would see across the country which states are in trouble,” she said, “Colorado is not one of them.”

Which states are in trouble?

“I can’t remember,” she said with a laugh.

If all 500,000 of Colorado’s estimated 800,000 uninsured actually buy coverage through the state’s exchange in 2014, that will represent about a 20 percent increase in the number of individual health plans Salazar’s agency will oversee. It currently regulates plans for about 2.26 million Coloradans in the state’s individual and small group markets.

“No, we don’t have a lot of extra money,” to handle the increased workload, Salazar said. “But I think that we’ve got tremendous resources.”

Salazar emphasized that she thinks her agency is up to the job of protecting consumers in 2014.

“As I’ve gone around and started talking to different staff here, I’ve been very impressed with the talent,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Marguerite Salazar’s earlier job. She worked for HHS, not CMS. 

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