Vision plans' launch on California health exchange still up in the air

06/26/2013 12:00 AM

06/27/2013 8:41 AM

Vision Service Plan's launch on California's new health care exchange is downright blurry, and the firm is seeing red.

The Rancho Cordova company and others in the vision industry lobbied successfully last year for the right to sell adult vision insurance to individuals via the state's new health care exchange.

But a new controversy has emerged, raising the prospect that vision plans will not be part of the state's exchange, Covered California, when it begins offering health insurance Oct. 1.

Delay would mean that VSP and other vision firms would be unable to solicit some of the 5 million Californians eligible to buy health coverage through the state exchange. But coverage would continue to be sold on the private market.

Trustees of Covered California tabled a proposal last week by VSP and the vision insurance industry that was meant to resolve the timing obstacle. VSP's Rancho Cordova facility employs about 2,100 people.

Jim McGrann, VSP president, characterized the firm as "very concerned" by the board's "decision to delay the vote on vision care."

Al Schubert, VSP vice president, said the firm continues to believe that an Oct. 1 launch of vision plans is plausible.

"What's standing in the way?" he said.

Sacramento County also is home to another eye-care insurer, Superior Vision, which employs about 80 people locally.

Anne Gonzales, Covered California spokeswoman, said the exchange wants to see vision plans offered and is reviewing options in light of a new federal policy that does not allow use of federal funds to support vision or other benefits not deemed essential under federal law.

"We want them to be up and running as soon as possible – what date that will be and what form it will take, we're still evaluating," Gonzales said.

After the new federal policy was issued March 29, a Covered California staff report promised to seek a solution – but for 2015, at the earliest.

Since then, VSP and the vision industry have been pushing for a more immediate solution, discussing two alternatives.

One option would allow sales of vision insurance to adults on Covered California's website in partnership with a private vendor.

A second option would allow buyers to move easily from Covered California's marketplace to the websites of VSP or other firms in evaluating and purchasing policies.

VSP prefers the latter model, accepted recently by Colorado's state exchange. Schubert said the system could be implemented in 30 days.

Gonzales said the state exchange wants to ensure that any solution is evaluated, tested and integrated properly.

"It's just too early to say when we could offer this," she said of devising a method for offering vision policies without violating federal policy.

VSP is concerned that the exchange's board will not meet again until August, less than two months before Covered California's marketplace is scheduled to launch.

Rick Corbett, chief executive officer of Superior Vision, released a statement Tuesday suggesting that the issue will not be resolved by Oct. 1 but perhaps shortly thereafter.

"I am optimistic that supplemental vision plans will be allowed to be part of Covered California's offerings within a relatively short time after the launch," Corbett said.

The bottom line, Schubert said, is that any delay would affect the provision of eye exams that could indicate chronic conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension.

"Our concern stems from adults not having access to vision care," he said.

Call Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @jwsanders55.

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