POST FALLS - North Idaho's "online marketplace" for health insurance is off to a rough start.
When Rep. Luke Malek was asked on Wednesday, during the monthly Partners in Business meeting at the Idaho Department of Labor, how many low-income Idahoans have signed up for the state's health insurance exchange since it opened Oct. 1, he paused before answering.
"Excellent question," he said. "We have no idea."
Until software is built for the program, Malek said, the trouble is tied in with the glitch-filled federal exchange under Obamacare that lacks reporting data.
And, as Malek and many other officials expected, the federal website to sign up for Obamacare has been an operational nightmare.
Malek, R-Coeur d'Alene, who serves on the Health and Welfare Committee during the Legislature and is the legal affairs director at Heritage Health (formerly Dirne Community Health Center), said he believes only a low number of Idahoans have signed up for the state exchange, but no statistics are available.
"The (federal) system has failed so catastrophically that they've reverted back to paper applications," he said.
"Some people are excited to get health insurance, but many can't sign up."
Malek said he believes it will be at least six months before the state software will be developed. Idaho is required to have an independent and sustainable system by 2016.
"We're affected by the federal exchange problems, but we'll be set to divorce ourselves from those once we have our software up and running," Malek said.
Malek was among a group of freshman legislators who pushed an amendment setting up the state exchange into law during the last Legislature. The bill provided more oversight over the Your Health Idaho nonprofit set up to create the state exchange and part of the state's way of foregoing the federal exchange.
"We're in a better position than if we had fallen to a federal exchange," Malek said. "The federal exchange would have cut Idaho brokers out of the process, made operational fees more expensive for Idaho businesses, substituted federal guidelines for Idaho standards and severely limited competition for plans.
"Because we rejected the federal exchange, Idaho stands to fight another day against the failures of Obamacare and a single-payer system."
Malek encouraged businesses and individuals to consult qualified health insurance brokers to see which plan option works best for them.
Ricia Lasso, an IDL business specialist, said the IDL has noticed a recent increase in more part-time positions available and labor experts are analyzing if that's the result of businesses reducing jobs to save money with the health care mandates.
Another attendee said her business is on the lookout for competitors using the health care situation to lure employees away by offering better options.
Malek also updated attendees on Medicaid expansion in Idaho.
A bill aiming solely to expand Medicaid didn't gain traction during the last session and he doesn't believe it would fly in the upcoming session either.
A Medicaid redesign bill, however, could be floated if it contains measures of accountability to where abuses would be curbed, Malek said.
"The chance that some bill expanding Medicaid will come forward is good," he said. "However, the chance that a bill will pass is questionable as Idahoans want to know that any reform will be accompanied by measures for accountability.
"Whether or not we can have an Idaho plan that is specific enough to meet the high standards of Idahoans this session is doubtful to me. I haven't even seen any proposals yet."
Malek said it also may be tough to pass such a bill during an election year, "but to ignore the problem would be fiscally irresponsible as well."
He said the current system is broken and hurting Idaho taxpayers through property, sales and income taxes. It's also hurting consumers through cost-shifting.
"On top of that, our outcomes through our current programs are abysmal because they don't prevent disastrous health problems," he said. "But we need to make sure we aren't jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire to chase a billion dollars (over 10 years) in savings to the Idaho taxpayer. We have to ensure we can provide the tax relief and improve the system through an Idaho-specific plan."