Health Insurance Exchange Chief, Ario, Steps Down After 1 Year

By Andrew Seaman and | August 2, 2011

The official charged with overseeing the creation of U.S. state-based health insurance exchanges is stepping down at a critical juncture for the Obama administration’s healthcare overhaul.

Joel Ario, director of health insurance exchanges at the Department of Health and Human Services, is leaving his job just as states begin to get guidelines for setting up the exchanges, HHS officials confirmed on Tuesday.

“It would certainly shake things up for the states who have had a very good working relationship with Joel, especially when we are all feeling the pressure to move forward … so we can have our state-based exchanges up and running in 2014,” Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said in a statement.

The idea behind the exchanges is to create easy access to a marketplace of insurance plans and allow uninsured people and small businesses to band together to negotiate for cheaper rates. Nearly 9 million people are expected to use the exchanges in the first year they operate.

But state governments, insurers and other key players like hospital systems have yet to receive details on how the exchanges should work and what basic coverage should be offered. So far, only 10 states have passed or enacted laws authorizing the exchanges, further evidence that implementing these changes is falling behind schedule.

Last month, HHS proposed a sliding deadline for states to set up the exchanges, relaxing a previously strict 2013 deadline to commit to a plan and be ready to start by 2014.

“Exchange planning will proceed as it has up till now,” said Steve Larsen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“We’re going to have a smooth transition. He’s not leaving tomorrow,” Larsen told reporters after a hearing on Capitol Hill when asked about Ario’s departure.

He would not elaborate on when Ario would leave or what prompted the move.

Ario joined HHS last year after serving as Pennsylvania’s insurance commissioner since 2007, and Oregon’s chief insurance officer before that.

“He was a natural fit for that position,” said Theresa Miller, administrator of Oregon’s Insurance Division. “It’s going to be hard finding someone to replace him.”

(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov, Andrew Seaman and Alina Selyukh; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Steve Orlofsky and Tim Dobbyn)

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