Conservative leaders in South Carolina may be loathe to publicly embrace “Obamacare,” but there are at least two who are busy behind the scenes making sure the state is ready for it.

“Like it or not, there are things people have to comply with,” said S.C. Medicaid Director Tony Keck, Gov. Nikki Haley’s health care cabinet member. “We’re trying to figure out how to keep things from collapsing.”

To that end, Keck encouraged consultant Jim Ritchie, the executive director of the S.C. Alliance of Health Plans, to organize a series of meetings this summer with health insurance companies in South Carolina.

The resulting coalition is called the Federal Marketplace Stakeholder Leadership Group and its members are brainstorming ways that will make the upcoming health care reform roll-out go as smoothly as possible.

“I asked Jim to help get it organized because I thought his members and the hospitals were not talking to each other,” said Keck, who called some hospitals “woefully unprepared” to comply with the legislation. “We’re getting ready for a train wreck.”

Fewer than 50 days remain before the federal government opens health insurance enrollment in the federal insurance marketplace on Oct. 1.

This marketplace, also called an insurance exchange, will be accessible to anyone in the state who wants to purchase a health insurance policy. It’s one of the pillars of the health care reform act, which was passed by Congress in 2010.

Four insurance companies will be offering South Carolina residents options to purchase a plan through the federal marketplace.

“(The insurance marketplace) is a federal government operation and responsibility but … we recognize there are things we can do for consumers,” said Kendall Buchanan, deputy director of market and consumer services at the S.C. Department of Insurance, who has attended the leadership group’s meetings. “We want to make it as easy for consumers as possible.”

So far, the group has discussed establishing a consistent dictionary. For example, using the word “marketplace” instead of “exchange” to avoid confusion.

The group is also developing a contact list to help connect consumers to real people, instead of 1-800 numbers, in case of questions or complaints.

“It’s an enormous task for the federal government to try to basically create an entire new health care purchasing structure in such a tight timeline,” said Ritchie, a former Republican state lawmaker from the Upstate.

“When (the federal government) had not produced significant guidance earlier this summer, it became apparent to Tony (Keck) and to me that we needed to be prepared independently with the South Carolina entities so that South Carolinians could be in the better position by Oct. 1.”

The Federal Marketplace Stakeholder Leadership Group includes state officials from the S.C. Department of Insurance, the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and employees from the Consumer’s Choice Health Plan, the United Way and other insurance and nonprofit groups.

A spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, the largest insurer in the state, confirmed that someone from the company has attended the meetings, but deferred questions about the discussion to Keck’s office.

Ritchie declined to specify which groups or how many people have attended these meetings, which have been held in Columbia.

Both Keck and Ritchie called the Federal Marketplace Stakeholder Leadership Group non-political.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.