Poll: S.C. voters back health care exchange

New S.C. Department of Insurance data shows more than 90 percent of South Carolinians who purchased coverage on HealthCare.gov qualify for a federal subsidy to offset the cost of their insurance policy.

Gov. Nikki Haley has said more than once this year that South Carolina should not set up its own health insurance marketplace — no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decides this summer.

But a new poll suggests a majority of voters would support Haley or the Legislature establishing one of these Obamacare exchanges if doing so meant residents here would continue to receive federal discounts to pay for coverage.

Nearly 60 percent of 800 voters interviewed in December would support the General Assembly and 52 percent would support Haley setting up an insurance marketplace in South Carolina.

An upcoming Supreme Court decision will determine if shoppers who use HealthCare.gov to buy insurance, including nearly 200,000 customers in South Carolina, will continue to qualify for federal financial aid to lower the price they pay.

Depending on the court’s decision, it’s possible that only low- to middle-income shoppers in states that set up state-based insurance marketplaces will remain eligible for the discounts, which typically knock more than $100 off the price of a monthly insurance premium.

“There’s no telling which direction it’s going to go. We’re aware of the case and we’ll just see what the Supreme Court says,” said S.C. Insurance Director Ray Farmer. “Those folks that are receiving a subsidy, it will adversely affect them to some degree, but you have to think Congress will address it — whatever the decision is.”

South Carolina and most other states did not set up state-based insurance marketplaces. Instead, they opted to use the federal insurance marketplace — commonly called by the name of its website, HealthCare.gov.

Robby Kerr, whose Columbia-based consulting firm commissioned the statewide poll on behalf of several clients in the health care industry, said he mainly wanted to gauge public perception regarding a controversial state regulation governing hospital expansion in South Carolina. Only two of 20 questions included in the poll asked voters about the state-based insurance exchange issue and they were nearly an afterthought, he said.

“It’s a very complicated issue and we were just trying to see where the public’s thought was trending more than drawing concrete conclusions on it,” Kerr said.

Nearly 80 percent of people polled wouldn’t need to use a federal or state-based insurance marketplace because they were insured through work or by Medicare. All of them voted in the 2010 and 2012 general elections.

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams would not answer questions about an insurance marketplace in South Carolina on Monday.

Last month, Adams said Haley’s decision not to create a state-based exchange was made because the federal government was putting the cost and responsibility on the state without offering any flexibility. “The right decision was made for South Carolina, and Governor Haley would make it again today,” Adams said.

Members of a special committee tasked with determining whether this state should establish a state-based insurance exchange in 2011 said they were unaware at the time that these federal subsidies were at stake.

Tony Keck, who led the group and recently resigned as the state’s Medicaid director, did not know if the committee’s final recommendation would have changed, but said, “I would have advised (Haley) in a completely different way than I did if I had known that.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.