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New York health insurance exchange a healthy step

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The insurance exchange that the Obama health care law requires New York to have in place by 2014 would be a boon for the state's uninsured and small businesses.

That's true even if the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress throw out the controversial Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or its mandate that everyone buy insurance, before it's fully implemented. New York should join the handful of states moving to voluntarily establish exchanges no matter the fate of the national law.

Unfortunately, authorization to create an exchange has been stalled in the New York State Senate. Its Republican majority is concerned about what the broader national health care reform could cost state taxpayers. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pledged to cut to the chase by issuing an executive order clearing the way to establish an exchange. It's the right thing to do.

Fifteen states either have exchanges or have begun setting them up. New York has already gotten $88 million in federal grants for that purpose. And if Albany doesn't design and implement one here, Washington will impose its own one-size-fits-all version. New York officials should not allow that to happen.

A well-designed exchange would provide one-stop shopping for individuals looking to buy insurance, and for small companies seeking coverage for their employees. It would simplify their search by organizing information about available plans in an open, transparent way that will make it easier to compare rates, benefits and other details online.

Twenty-six states have challenged the constitutionality of the national health reform law and the individual mandate at its heart. The Supreme Court heard three days of arguments in the case last month, and skeptical questions from several key justices have prompted widespread speculation that the law may not withstand the scrutiny. A decision is expected in June.

If the law survives in the court, the Republican presidential candidates and many Republicans in Congress have promised a crusade to repeal it.

No matter what happens to "Obamacare," there will be a lot of New Yorkers fending for themselves in the complex private health insurance marketplace. An exchange would provide a smart assist, by helping those potential customers navigate the options and find affordable coverage that best meets their needs. For small businesses, an exchange could function much as human resources departments do in large companies, by collecting and analyzing information on competing plans and guiding employers on their choices. And by allowing easy comparison shopping, the exchange should slow the growth of insurance premiums.

Senate Republicans have legitimate questions about what the expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the reform law could cost New York. But that's no reason to delay work on an exchange.

Providing information consumers need to make sound decisions about the critical purchase of health insurance is worth the effort, even if not mandated by Washington.