By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY – On Monday, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley sent a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services saying he did not like Obamacare and would not comply with requested information.
Falling far short of all out defiance in the press release Bentley said, “Due to a lack of proper options and very little guidance from the federal government, Governor Robert Bentley chose not to confine Alabama to an ‘essential health benefits’ plan under the Affordable Care Act.”
According to federal time lines all states are to notify the federal government by November 16 when states are required to submit a blueprint for how their exchanges will operate. If the state does not make a choice then the feds will determine the type of exchange to be implemented.
Monday’s refusal was only to a request that states submit a lists of essential benefits that would be models for plans offered on the exchanges.
In the rambling letter, Bentley said “As you are aware, I am a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act. As both a physician and a governor, I have determined that it is irresponsible and short-sighted to make a decision on essential health benefits by confining the decision to a select few plans and without having been offered clear guidance from the federal government.”
But these are the only options the federal government is allowing the states, so it would seem Bentley does not like the choice that he has been given.
While the Governor has publicly declared his distain for he Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare his actions over the last several years appears contradictory.
What some are heralding as a stand against Obamacare, actually appears to be short of complete denunciation and more like refusing to complete a homework assignment.
In the letter Bentley says he needs more information, wants a different option, but his actions all point to building a health exchange for Alabama anyway.
In running for governor Bentley made it clear that he had an idea and a plan for an Alabama healthcare exchange. It was a statement on his website.
As Fovernor, he has reiterated this idea and plan many times. In a question posed by Publisher and Editor Steve Spencer of the “Birmingham Medical News” in May 2011 about the way to reduce health care costs in Alabama, Bentley said, “There are a lot of things we can do. For example, before the Affordable Healthcare bill was even considered, I talked about creating an insurance exchange for the state of Alabama. And we’re looking at that now. We’re trying to set up the framework, crafting it a way that it would fit the Affordable Healthcare Act if it’s implemented. But our exchange will include so many other things, like health savings accounts.”
In 2011, Bentley created a commission to recommend a plan for a health insurance exchange, but he successfully opposed efforts by some legislators to enact one during the 2012 legislative session.
On June 2, 2011, Governor Bentley signed Executive Order 17 creating the Alabama Healthcare Insurance Exchange. It reads: “WHEREAS, creation of a Health Insurance Exchange (the ‘Exchange’) for Alabama citizens is a paramount priority of this administration; WHEREAS, upon its creation, the Exchange will facilitate the purchase and sale of health plans in the individual markets and the small employer market; and, WHEREAS, the Exchange will present consumers with broader choices and more individualized options for fulfilling their health care needs by fostering a consumer-centric health insurance market in the State of Alabama.”
Yet, time and again, Bentley has been an outspoken opponent of ACA while building the essential elements within the state without public acknowledgment from the Governor or his staff. The Governor has for over a year had the Alabama Healthcare Insurance Exchange operating out of the Department of Insurance.
The office is headed by Richard Fiore who formerly worked for retired democrat Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. Fiore was paid $101,726.40 as director of the healthcare exchange in 2012.
In July of this year, the Governor called a high-level secret meeting to discuss spending $50 million dollars to build the Alabama Healthcare Exchange.
The big question that Governor Bentley put before the high-powered council, was should he move forward with building out the federally-mandated healthcare exchange or not. But behind all the talk was the nagging question of now to keep it from the Tea Party if the administration moved forward.
One insider at the meeting said, “I was shocked and really irritated when several of the governor’s people kept referring to $50 million dollars as free money,” said one attendee. “These may be federal dollars but they are not free, they are taxpayer dollars.”
Others were shocked that the governor’s office has already sent out RFPs and received bids from three companies to build out the exchange. Legislators where not provided with the names of these companies even though they were informed that the governor’s office had already decided who had won the contract.
After the Alabama Political Reporter broke the story about the secret meeting, the governor’s office called in many Tea Party leaders to assure them that the administration opposed Obamacare.
Kathleen Healey, who works for the Alabama Insurance Exchange, was said to be the major proponent of quick implementation of Obamacare. Even going so far as to say that there is a federal timeline in which the $50 million plus dollars must be spent. However, experts on the ACA law said that Ms. Healey is not accurate and there is no “gun to the head” timeline for spending the money.
Healey is paid $87,136.38 annually for her work on the Alabama Insurance exchange.
So, while the Governor tells the federal government, “It would be irresponsible for him to commit Alabama to a specific benefits plan,” all logic points to the fact that Bentley has a plan.
In his letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bentley wrote, “I truly believe that in order to control costs, consumers themselves must be a part of any equation. As such, I am a strong supporter of health savings accounts, health savings accounts empower the consumer in all aspects of health care decision making. The Affordable Care Act includes many provisions, all supposedly geared toward making health insurance affordable, yet it does not include any significant mention of health savings accounts. I contend that the law does not make health insurance affordable and negatively affects consumer choice.”
If this is an opt-out of Obamacare as some are suggesting, then somewhere in the Governor’s imagination there is another plan called, Bentleycare.