By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., Feb 7 (Reuters) - Florida's own health insurance marketplace, long touted by Republican lawmakers as a free-market solution to providing affordable health coverage, is expected to launch as early as next week.
Six years in the making, Florida Health Choices will open for business with an inventory of products that cannot legally be marketed using the words insurance, coverage, benefits or premiums, according to Chief Executive Officer Rose Naff.
The brainchild of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio while he was a state legislative leader in 2008, Florida Health Choices has been held up by advocates as a better alternative to President Obama's signature Affordable Care Act.
Signed into law in 2010, the U.S. Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, went live on Oct. 1 and by late January had enrolled 3 million people.
The law created state-based online health insurance exchanges that opened on Oct. 1 for coverage on Jan. 1 and sell plans with minimum benefit requirements.
The Florida products do not meet the comprehensive requirements of Obamacare, and Naff said there is no timetable for Florida Health Choices to offer broader insurance plans that meet the new federal benefit standards.
Subsidies provided in the federal program would also not be available through the state site.
"We are not competing with the federal exchanges," Naff said.
Naff said Florida Health Choices initially will make available five types of discount cards that offer purchasers a better deal on certain dental, vision, prescription or chiropractic services.
The cards, which are offered by Careington International based in Frisco, Texas, will cost $6 to $25 a month, depending on the services selected.
Naff said other products, including limited-benefit insurance plans, which focus on single medical issues such as cancer or vision, will be rolled out at a later date.
Florida is one of 36 states where the federal government is running the exchange, called HealthCare.gov. The other 14 states run their own exchanges.
Naff said there are 1.3 million people in Florida who are uninsured and ineligible for subsidies in the federal marketplace.
Florida has about 3.8 million uninsured people, or about 20 percent of its population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Florida's Governor Rick Scott signed off on state funding of Florida Health Choices while trying to block the Affordable Care Act and rejecting millions of federal dollars to implement it in the state.
Florida led the legal challenge against Obamacare, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld most provisions of the act. Scott continued to throw roadblocks in the way of Obamacare, banning "navigators," volunteers who help consumers sign up for insurance in the federal marketplace, from operating out of state-funded county health departments.
The state marketplace was No. 87 in Rubio's 2006 book, "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future," published months before he took over as leader of the Florida House. Rubio made the marketplace a priority and obtained $1.5 million in start-up funding in 2008. Another $900,000 of state funding was awarded in 2013.
"Florida Health Choices is a program based on principles ObamaCare violated," a spokeswoman for Rubio said in a statement on Friday. "There are no mandates, trillions in new spending, or bureaucratic rules to come between patients and their doctors," she added.
Greg Mellowe, policy director at Florida CHAIN, a statewide consumer health advocacy group, said the state's version provided "an illusion of coverage."
"In some cases, these things are not insurance at all," Mellowe added.
Naff said potential Florida Health Choices customers are 525,000 adults who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Those same people would qualify for Medicaid coverage if Florida's Republican-dominated legislature would accept $51 billion from the federal government to expand Medicaid's income guidelines, Naff said.
The legislature, whose leaders fought the Affordable Care Act, declined the money in 2013.
Other potential customers are about 800,000 non-citizens living in the state who are not eligible under the Affordable Care Act, Naff said.