HHS health exchange chief resigns

Three department staffers will take over most of Joel Ario's role as the point person on establishing state insurance exchanges under health reform.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Aug. 12, 2011

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The Health and Human Services official overseeing federal implementation of the new health insurance marketplace unexpectedly is leaving his position to be closer to his family.

Joel Ario, director of the HHS Office of Insurance Exchanges, will return home to Hershey, Pa., on Aug. 26 but will continue to lead the federal health insurance exchange team until Sept. 23. Ario's departure was announced in an Aug. 2 letter to department staff from Steve Larsen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, which includes Ario's office.

The health system reform law requires states to start operating their own health insurance exchanges by January 2014 or allow HHS to operate a federal exchange. The exchanges will offer private coverage with government subsidies based on an individual's income. They also will operate websites, toll-free phone lines, and brick-and-mortar offices to explain the available health plan choices and help consumers enroll in coverage, including through Medicaid.

"Joel's efforts have put us on a solid path to 2014, when Americans in every state will have access to affordable coverage through an exchange," Larsen wrote. Ario managed the implementation of grants to help states plan and implement health exchanges, the unveiling of a proposed rule guiding state implementation efforts, and countless meetings with states about exchanges.

Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said she understands why Ario would leave his position. "He has three boys, and I think he's doing the right thing for his family," said Praeger, who was president of the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners in 2008. Ario did not respond to a request for comment on his decision.

Ario's departure leaves a gap that will be filled by three department staffers. Most of the official's role will be taken over by Larsen and Tim Hill, director of the HHS Center for Drug and Health Plan Choice. Larsen was Maryland's insurance commissioner for six years. HHS also will hire a state liaison to ensure that states have a direct point of contact at the agency, Larsen wrote.

Much work remains on implementing the exchanges, including finalizing the exchange regulation addressing how HHS will certify that the marketplaces are ready for operation. The department is accepting comments on the proposed rule until Sept. 28. HHS also must specify how it will operate exchanges in states that decline to do so or aren't ready in time.

However, the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners issued a statement saying that commissioners "anticipate this shift to be a seamless transition."

Before joining HHS, Ario was Pennsylvania insurance commissioner from June 2007 to August 2010. Before that, he had the same job in Oregon starting in 2000.

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