government

Pennsylvania insurance regulator to oversee health exchanges

Joel Ario is tapped to head a key new function that will allow millions of people to buy coverage starting in 2014.

By Chris Silva — Posted Aug. 23, 2010

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Joel Ario is leaving his post as Pennsylvania's insurance commissioner to head the office that will be responsible for setting up health insurance exchanges in every state by 2014 that will enable coverage for tens of millions of people.

Starting Aug. 30, Ario will become director of the Office of Insurance Exchanges at the federal Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. The Dept. of Health and Human Services did not provide details as to what Ario's duties would entail, although it confirmed his appointment.

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Joel Ario, director, HHS Office of Insurance Exchanges

Starting in 2014, individuals and small businesses will be able to buy insurance directly from an exchange, which HHS describes as "a new transparent and competitive insurance marketplace" that will offer qualified health benefit plans. The exchanges are designed to offer plans largely for people who don't get coverage through their jobs or from public programs.

In June 2007, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell nominated Ario as the state's insurance chief, describing him as "a highly qualified and seasoned administrator with a strong and proven record of fighting to protect the rights and needs of consumers." Before coming to Pennsylvania, Ario was the chief insurance regulator for Oregon, a job he had since 2000.

Ario made headlines in January 2009, when a proposed public merger of two large Blues plans in Pennsylvania imploded.

A week before the deadline for state regulators to rule on the merger between Highmark Inc. and Independence Blue Cross, the two companies announced they were withdrawing their application, citing displeasure with state regulators' conditions for approval. The insurers said they were particularly unhappy with a requirement that one of the plans would have had to give up its Blues designation. Ario had brought up this stipulation during a July 2008 public hearing.

Ario issued a statement after the companies' withdrawal, saying he welcomed the decision.

"Bigger is not always better -- and in this case, bigger would have been bad for consumers," he said at the time. "We were prepared to disapprove this transaction because it would have lessened competition and disadvantaged providers to the detriment of the insurance-buying public."

Ario serves on the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners' Executive Committee. Previous NAIC assignments included chair of the Health Insurance and Managed Care Committee and the Market Regulation Committee. Additionally, he serves on the Consumer Participation Board of Trustees and the board of directors for the National Insurance Producer Registry, a collaboration between NAIC and insurers.

Rendell named Robert L. Pratter on Aug. 9 to serve as acting insurance commissioner. He has been executive deputy general counsel for litigation with the state's Office of General Counsel since 2008. A state insurance department spokesman said any open or pending investigations by Ario of insurers' practices would continue under Pratter.

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