CHICAGO — Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration has eliminated 15 staff positions from Get Covered Illinois, the state's health insurance exchange, three months ahead of the third annual enrollment period under President Barack Obama's health care law.
The layoffs raise questions about the Republican administration's plans for helping consumers enroll in health insurance coverage under the law — the Democratic president's signature domestic policy achievement.
Staff members learned Wednesday of the layoffs that take effect July 31.
On Thursday, the Rauner administration announced Get Covered Illinois will become a division of the Department of Insurance to "streamline program processes" and "improve efficiency," according to a news release. The insurance department is headed by Rauner appointee Anne Melissa Dowling, who came from the Connecticut Insurance Department and was a board member of Connecticut's state-based health insurance exchange.
The open enrollment period for health insurance coverage begins Nov. 1 and runs through Jan. 31, 2016.
"Entering year three, we will be operating with less federal funding than in previous years and have reduced our staffing levels," according to a statement emailed by chief marketing officer Jose Munoz, one of the people whose job was cut.
In total, Illinois has received more than $150 million from the federal government for Get Covered Illinois, but it's not clear how much of that is left.
The Get Covered Illinois website and a call center will still operate. An unknown number of enrollment counselors will still offer in-person help throughout the state, said Stephanie Altman of the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which has operated a technical assistance center for the enrollment counselors.
"It worries us," Altman said of the layoffs. "We do feel some assurance that the state is continuing some important aspects like the website." She noted that many other states operate their exchanges out of state insurance departments. Under former Gov. Pat Quinn, the insurance exchange was run from the governor's office.
In the first two years of enrollment, under Quinn's Democratic administration, Illinois obtained federal grants that paid for $33 million and $25.6 million contracts with the St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard to promote insurance coverage.
The federal government is allowing states to continue using unspent grant money, but exactly how much is still available in Illinois is unclear.
Officials in Rauner's office did not answer questions Thursday about how much is available to spend through the end of the year. Get Covered Illinois has been funded with federal grants under the health law, not state taxpayer dollars.
"Consumers are still going to need a lot of help. Eliminating the majority of the staff raises a lot of questions about how consumers are going to connect with services and enrollment," said Jennifer Koehler, an attorney who was executive director of Get Covered Illinois under Quinn and resigned the post in February. She now works as a consultant.
Only three state leadership positions will remain in Get Covered Illinois, including Karin Zosel, a Rauner appointee who succeeded Koehler as executive director.
Get Covered Illinois's call center, which is operated by Lighthouse for the Blind, will continue to staff according to call volume demand, officials said.
Also continuing will be two employees who work under a general services contract to manage the call center and a technology contract. Six staff members who are contracted for IT and budget management support will keep their jobs.
"We look forward to working with the Department (of Insurance) and our other partners to provide Illinois consumers with the tools and resources they need to get covered, stay covered and stay healthy," Zosel said in a news release.
Carla K. Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson