JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney received conditional federal approval Tuesday to run an online marketplace where businesses with 50 or fewer employees can buy health insurance, starting in January.
Chaney was doing a telephone interview with The Associated Press when he received the notice from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. He said the notice is good news. It allows the Mississippi Insurance Department to develop the Small Business Health Options, or SHOP, exchange under the federal health overhaul law.
With conditional approval, federal officials expect the Mississippi department will continue developing the marketplace called One Mississippi in compliance with the Affordable Care Act, and "will be ready to provide affordable, quality coverage to small business owners and their employees in 2014," Sebelius wrote in the letter, a copy of which Chaney sent to AP.
The Affordable Care Act is the health overhaul signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. Chaney, a Republican, has said repeatedly that he opposes the law but he believes it's his duty to try to follow its mandates.
An exchange is an online marketplace, and there had long been uncertainty about whether the federal government would allow a state to run a Small Business Health Options exchange if the state were not running its own individual exchange. Mississippi's individual exchange is run by the federal government because Republican Gov. Phil Bryant objected to a state-run exchange.
The notice about Mississippi's SHOP exchange came the same day that people were first able to buy individual coverage through online insurance marketplaces created under the federal health law.
In an interview with AP on Tuesday, Bryant repeated his objections to the law. He said the federal government is grabbing too large a role in health care.
"I think it's going to be a disaster once people begin to understand it's going to cost them money," Bryant said.
The Mississippi Center for Health Policy estimated in 2012 that up to 275,000 Mississippians could get insurance through the individual exchange, with 230,000 qualifying for federal tax credits that would reduce what they pay.
Two companies are selling insurance policies through the individual exchange in Mississippi, and they overlap in only four of the 82 counties. Although Chaney's office isn't running the individual health exchange, he said it received about three dozen calls from consumers about it Tuesday.
"We've gotten a lot of compliments as well as complaints," he said.
He said some people complained the government website was slow, while some in the Meridian area were happy to know another hospital had been added to the coverage network.
Among the Mississippi residents planning to shop for coverage are 46-year-old Shawn Watson of Pass Christian and 40-year-old Sharonda Noel of Greenwood. They have full-time jobs that don't provide health insurance.
"I make a conscious effort to eat right and exercise," said Watson, an administrative assistant at a funeral home. "But as you get older, it's inevitable that you're going to have health issues."
Noel, a daycare worker, has several chronic conditions, including lupus and high blood pressure. She said she could qualify for government assistance on disability, but she wants to work to provide for herself and her two teenage children.
"I'm not looking for a handout," Noel said.
Watson is single with a grown child who is no longer a dependent, so she'll only have to shop for her own coverage. She said she's feeling a financial pinch because she had to go to a local hospital to be X-rayed after twisting an ankle. A local clinic wanted her to pay half the cost for the X-ray up front, and she didn't have the cash on hand. The hospital put her on a payment plan.
Watson said she didn't plan to buy coverage on the health exchange right away. Instead, she said she'll take some time to do research and see what she can afford.
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