(News-Press.com) - The Florida alternative to Obamacare has, so far, been a bust.
Nearly six months after going online, and six years after the state's GOP leaders conceived it as a "free-market" response to calls for federal health reform, Florida Health Choices has found only about 30 customers, according to its Chief Executive Officer Rose Naff.
The online buying exchange, which has received $2.4 million in taxpayer funding since 2008, has also not secured deals with any major health insurers. For now, it mostly offers memberships to discount dental and vision programs.
Nearly a million Floridians purchased insurance plans on the federal exchange created under the Affordable Care Act, healthcare.gov, during its first year of operation, according to government figures.
Despite the small number of buyers on the state exchange, Naff said she's confident the Florida site will soon expand its offerings and will attract the interest of employers looking to do business with a private health exchange.
"The majority of Floridians do not or will not buy insurance on the federal exchange," she said. "It does not just have to be the uninsured we're targeting."
Customers on the state site are almost evenly split on buying drug discount plans and dental/vision plans, Naff said.
Florida Health Choices received $1.5 million in startup funds from the Legislature in 2008, after getting the blessing of then-state House Speaker Marco Rubio. State lawmakers allocated another $900,000 to the project last year.
Now-Sen. Rubio's office released a written statement in support of the site Tuesday but did not address questions about its success in attracting customers.
"A true free-market exchange is something that Sen. Rubio has always said he preferred and he continues to support. What's in Obamacare is neither free-market or truly an exchange."
State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who helped secure funding for the state exchange last year was undergoing a medical procedure Tuesday and unavailable for comment, according to his spokeswoman.
Florida Health Choices spends about $350,000 a year, about half of which goes to salaries. It spent nearly $18,000 this year on Internet advertising and social media marketing. Aside from the 30 customers, that produced 5,000 Facebook "Likes" and 4,200 web ad clicks.
Naff said earlier this year that the site would need 67,000 customers over its first year to cover costs. She said a "few thousand" buyers might help cover website expenses, if not the full organization.
She also said she has no plans to ask for more money from the Legislature.
Florida Health Choices has nearly $1.2 million cash , an amount bolstered by a recent $370,000 contract settlement with Xerox State Healthcare, which had been hired to build the website.
Naff will recommend a replacement for Xerox next week. That new vendor would help the site provide comprehensive health insurance policies, such as those offered on the federal exchange.
Florida Health Choices' woes will certainly provide ammunition for supporters of the Affordable Care Act. Florida has refused to expand Medicaid eligibility, which might provide coverage for about 1 million low-income Floridians, and the estimated $50 billion of supporting federal dollars over the next decade.
"I think 30 customers is actually less participation than we would have thought possible," said Greg Mellowe, policy director for the pro-Obamacare health advocacy group, Florida CHAIN, in an email. "One obvious conclusion would seem to be that, although these discount plans and other minimal benefit products have long been touted as part of a solution, consumers will simply not choose them if they have other options for real coverage, as so many now do through the Affordable Care Act."
Naff said she's had "renewed conversations" with undisclosed insurers about providing more comprehensive coverage on the state site. But she said she has not yet secured any agreements.