Women Leading Ky. Health: Exchange Director Carrie Banahan says getting people health insurance is highlight of her career

This is the first in a series, Women Leading Kentucky Health, of stories about four high-ranking female state officials who have guided the state’s embrace of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky
Health News
Energy exudes
from Carrie Banahan when she talks about her work with others to bring
affordable health care to more than half a million Kentuckians.
Banahan discussed Kynect with a man in Pikeville last
 summer. (Wall Street Journal photo by Ian Bates)
“I worked all my life to see
this happen, that we can provide affordable health insurance to people, and it
has actually happened,” she said. “I am thrilled that we are actually helping
people in Kentucky. It is the highlight of my career.”
Banahan is executive
director of the Kentucky Health Benefits Exchange, which the state has branded as
Kynect, partly to avoid identification with the pejorative nickname Obamacare. She
shares the credit for its success.
“One thing
that I am proud to say I am part of is our team in general,” she said in an
interview. “Everybody is very dedicated to this project and wants it to succeed
and believes, as we all do, that we are going to make a huge difference in
people’s lives.  We are going to improve
the health status of Kentuckians.”
She attributes
the success of Kynect to early planning, collaboration and teamwork.  Outside state government, she credits the
support of community groups and a pent-up demand in Kentucky for access to affordable
health insurance.
Banahan was executive
director of the state Office of Health Policy when the Patient Protection and Affordable
Care Act passed in 2010. Gov. Steve Beshear immediately gave her the task of investigating
whether Kentucky should establish its own health-insurance exchange.
Beshear
decided to do that, but they had to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on
the law. On June 28, 2012, the court voted 5-4 to uphold it, except the part
that would have denied Medicaid funds to states that did not expand the program.
Beshear created
the exchange and named Banahan its director. With its successful rollout little
more than a year later, Kentucky has become the national model for how to start
and run a successful state exchange.
Banahan knew the landscape
of Kentucky health care and insurance because of her work in the key departments
involved: Insurance, Medicaid and Community Based Services, formerly Social
Services.
“I think it has been
beneficial that I am a veteran,” she said. 
“They all know me. They all trust me. I have good working relationships
with all of them.  So I think that has
helped to sell this.”
She said much credit should go
to others. “We have just tremendous support from the business community, the
Kentucky Chamber of Commerce . . . all of the medical related associations, advocacy
groups, insurers, agents.”
But Banahan
was key to making it happen, said her boss, Audrey Haynes, secretary of the
Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“There was
not another person that was in this state as suited for that job at this time
as Carrie Banahan,” she said. “And when I recommended her to the governor, he
was also convinced that there was no one else.”
So far, more than 521,000 Kentuckians have enrolled for
health-care coverage through Kynect, three fourths of them through Medicaid.
That was more than expected; when Banahan was interviewed this
spring, her staff was celebrating with a cake for only 275,000 signups.
Banahan said her biggest surprise
was “the overwhelming response, people applying. People out there on our
website.  That has been the biggest
surprise for everybody, how successful the rollout was, the support we have
had.  It was a wonderful surprise.”
She added, “That just
demonstrates that there was certainly pent-up demand from folks who needed
affordable health insurance coverage. . . . There are people who couldn’t
afford to get treatment and now they can seek services.”
Looking to the future, she
said, “It will be hard to top next year.”
Banahan’s “next year” is
closer than it sounds. She and her team are planning for the next open enrollments,
which will run from Nov. 15, 2014, through Jan. 15, 2015.
She said her primary focus
of the next enrollment period will be informing individuals about the subsidy
component of Kynect, even those with private health insurance.  A family of four making as much as $94,000 a
year qualifies for a subsidy.
Kynect will also work on
improving its Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), which allows employers
with fewer than 50 workers to enroll them for health coverage through Kynect; increasing
outreach and education for those age 18-29, known as the “young invincibles;” and
making sure people understand that the eligibility for Medicaid has expanded,
and that many who qualify haven’t applied for it, Banahan said.
“I am always energized and
very optimistic,” she said.  “I am ready
for the next open enrollment to see if we can reach more people.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news
service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in
the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky,
with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
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