HHS gives states more time to design insurance exchanges

Insurers have a little extra breathing room to comply with federal regulations for health insurance exchanges--the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services extended the deadline for states to submit their blueprint applications by a month.

States must still send letters of intent to design a state-based exchange by Friday, but now they have until Dec. 14 to submit actual plans for the exchange, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote Friday in a letter to state governors.

HHS granted the extension to help states create a more "comprehensive, complete Blueprint application" for their insurance exchanges, according to Sebelius.

Despite the extra time, HHS said it will keep the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline to approve or conditionally approve the exchanges for 2014.

"This administration is committed to providing significant flexibility for building a marketplace that best meets your state's needs," Sebelius said in the letter. "We intend to issue further guidance to assist you in the very near future."

Such information would be welcome news for health insurers, as a lack of clear regulatory guidance has been preventing insurers from being prepared to fully implement health reform, Independence Blue Cross President and CEO Daniel Hilferty told FierceHealthPayer last week.

"It's driving the insurance companies crazy to not have any clarity about what they need to be offering in the exchanges," Dan Mendelson, CEO of Washington-based consulting company Avalere Health, told NBC News. "Having said that, when push comes to shove, the insurers want to be offering products in the exchanges. They will rise to the challenge," he noted.

To date, only 13 states and the District of Columbia said they will run their own health insurance exchanges. GOP-led Texas, Florida and Louisiana already rejected a state-run exchange, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

Meanwhile, health insurers and industry groups worry that national health plans to be available through all health insurance exchanges will create an uneven playing field in state insurance markets.

For more:
- read the HHS letter (.pdf)
- read the Lincoln Journal Star article
- here's the NBC News blog post