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Wyoming business owners eye exchanges for insurance help

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Pope Construction offers full health coverage to its employees — a rarity for the building industry.

The benefit attracts good workers, said owner Greg Pope. But it’s also about taking care of his people.

“Frankly, it is just the right thing to do,” he said.

So last year, when the company’s provider went belly up, Pope began hunting for a new health plan. He spent hours analyzing different options before finding a policy that worked for his business. The results weren’t ideal. The new plan came with a higher deductible, less coverage and a 150 percent increase in the cost of premiums.

“That’s a hardship on trying to be competitive,” he said.

Pope would like a better way to buy insurance. Although he’s not sold on the concept, he hopes a health exchange — sort of a farmers market where customers shop for insurance plans instead of vegetables — might offer a solution.

“The bottom line is I’m not in favor of an exchange competing with private business in any way,” he said. “But if it could somehow encourage competition and ... enable us all to make objective comparisons of the alternatives available, then I believe the exchanges could be a real valuable thing.”

A state committee is studying whether Wyoming should create its own exchange. The system could help small business owners, Pope told the group when it met Monday in Cheyenne.

“Primarily, I’m hoping the

exchange could offer a marketplace that simplifies and clarifies the comparison process when we have to go shopping for coverage,” he said via videoconference from Casper.

Pope was one of three business representatives to offer their view to the Wyoming Health Benefits Exchange Steering Committee. The group is studying different models for exchanges, which are a key component of health reform.

Although mostly associated with President Barack Obama, exchanges were actually popularized by the Heritage Foundation, a Conservative think tank, said Christian Jones, a consultant hired by the committee.

Advocates of exchanges say they will address escalating health care costs through competition.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states are required to begin operating exchanges by 2014. The federal government will operate Wyoming’s program if the state chooses not to.

Steve Loftin is no fan of “Obamacare.” But the president of Casper-based 71 Construction said exchanges could help business owners.

If an exchange existed, business owners could give workers a set amount for health coverage. Then workers could find a plan that best fits their needs, Loftin said.

Under the existing system, it’s challenging for employers to compare insurance policies. An exchange could make the process easier, he said.

“In the current marketplace, no two health plans are alike,” he told the committee. “If a health exchange could decide what each part means, that would be very helpful to us. I think that at first, we wouldn’t want more out of an exchange besides that.”

Contact Joshua Wolfson at 307-266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com. Visit http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/wolfjammies to read his blog. Follow him on Twitter @joshwolfson.

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