Health Exchanges a High Priority on Albany's To-Do List

New York lawmakers are expected to return to Albany for a special session next month, and high on their agenda is hashing out a new health insurance exchange.

The exchange is required under the federal health care overhaul to make coverage more affordable and reduce the number of uninsured.

More than two million New Yorkers don't have insurance, and estimates are that the new system will reduce that number by 1/3 to 2/3.

Peter Newell, from the United Hospital Fund, said the exchange should allow people to compare private insurance policies.

"This is sort of a hybrid," Newell said. "On the one hand, it's a government entity, but then on the other hand it's an insurance store — a place you can visit, virtually or in person, and make a decision and buy something.

Some have compared the future insurance exchanges to Travelocity or other online middle-men for purchasing goods or services. The state has until early 2013 to put an exchange in place.

But passing the law that creates it, appointing a board and setting up what amounts to a new public authority are all expected to take many months.

State Senator Kemp Hannon said there are still many large questions to resolve — like what the exchange will cost the state, and who will take care of newly insured patients.

"Where is the capacity of New York's health system going to expand?" asked the Long Island Republican, who chairs the Senate Health Committee. "Where do we get additional clinics? Where do we get additional ERs? Where do we get additional doctors, nurses. Where does all that take place?"

Individuals and small businesses can currently buy insurance without an exchange, but premiums are often prohibitively expensive.