So far California has received $910 million in federal grants to launch its new health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
The California exchange, “Covered California,” has so far awarded a $183 million contract to Accenture to build the website, enrollment, and eligibility system and another $174 million to operate the exchange for four years.
The state will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.
The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange’s executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. “The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million,” he said. “But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen.”
For some additional perspective I took a look at what it cost to launch the private insurance marketing site, Esurance. That company sells not only health insurance but also things like homeowners and auto insurance across the country. When I put my zip code into their system along with my age, they offered me 87 different health plans from all the big players in my area. Now granted, the new health insurance exchanges are more complex because they have to interface with Medicaid and the IRS as well as calculate subsidies. But the order of magnitude difference in what it cost to launch esurance compared to the California exchange is pretty big.
Privately funded Esurance began its multi-product national web business in 1998 with an initial $5.5 million round of venture fund investment in 1999 and a second round of $34 million a few months later.
The start-up experience of other major web companies is also instructive. Facebook received $13.7 million to launch in 2005. eBay was founded in 1995 and received its first venture money in 1997––$6.7 million in 1997.
Even doubling these investments for inflation still leaves quite a gap.
The California Exchange officials also say they need 20,000 part time enrollers to get everybody signed up––paying them $58 for each application. Having that many people out in the market creates quality control issues particularly when these people will be handling personal information like address, birth date, and social security number. California Blue Shield, by comparison has 5,000 employees serving 3.5 million members.
New York is off to a similar start. New York has received two grants totaling $340 million again just to set up an enrollment and eligibility process.
I thought it was notable that the Obama Administration has issued grants totaling $174 million to a non-profit group––Freelancers––for the purpose of setting up a new full service health plan in New York under the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance co-op program.
So, the Obama administration thinks it costs $174 million to set up a full service health insurance company in New York (including the significant cost of premium reserves) compared to $340 million to set up just a statewide insurance exchange to do eligibility and enrollment?
As many as 17 states are going to be setting up their own health insurance exchanges under the new law and the feds have so far released $3.4 billion to the states to build them. Little Vermont has received $124 million so far, Kentucky $253 million, and Oregon $242 million, for example. I wonder what the per person cost of exchange enrollment in Vermont will be?
Single-payer health system advocates have long argued that the government can do a better job running a health insurance system for a lot less money than the private sector.
Robert Laszewski has been a fixture in Washington health policy circles for the better part of three decades. He currently serves as the president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates of Alexandria, Virginia. You can read more of his thoughtful analysis of healthcare industry trends at The Health Policy and Marketplace Blog, where this post first appeared.