Christine Stuart photo
Recruited by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, the head of Connecticut’s insurance exchange will be leaving next month to start a new job in Washington.

Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, will be leaving Sept. 5 to become Marketplace CEO at the Centers of Medicaid and Medicare Services. In his new position, Counihan will be responsible for the federal marketplace, managing relationships with state marketplaces, and running the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, which regulates health insurance at the federal level.

“He brings additional operational and technological expertise to the position and will be a clear, single point of contact for streamlined decision-making,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell said in a press release.

His departure is bittersweet for him and state officials who credited his leadership for the success of Connecticut’s state-based exchange.

“Connecticut’s exchange has been held up to the national model,” Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said. “And we’re very proud of that.”

The Access Health CT board of of directors will be choosing an interim CEO next week as the exchange heads into its second open enrollment period. At the same time, it will begin a national search for Counihan’s replacement.

“I’m very proud of him and very happy for him,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Tuesday before he quipped, “Going to Washington — you should have your head examined.”

Malloy said he received a courtesy call from Burwell who let him know she was bringing Counihan to Washington to work with her team on

But even before the phone call, Malloy said he knew Counihan was leaving. He said he could have played the phone call with Burwell two ways.

“I could tell her it was a terrible, terrible mistake that she would even consider Kevin for this new position,” Malloy joked. “But good people deserve to have good and wonderful things happen for them and to them and this recognition that Kevin really is the best in the land getting this work done is a high honor and privilege.”

Counihan said he’s proud of what Connecticut’s accomplished and tried to put it into perspective.

“Research shows that only six percent of government IT projects are successful,” Counihan said. “And we certainly went against that tide.”

Malloy said nine states are in negotiations with Connecticut for its information technology as it’s related to the exchange.

At least one healthcare advocacy group expressed concern Tuesday about a change in leadership at the exchange so close to the second enrollment period.

Frances Padilla, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, said she’s concerned there are still unresolved issues that the new CEO will need to handle immediately.

“With no funding or plan in place for in-person assistance for this upcoming enrollment period, we are truly concerned many residents won’t sign up for health insurance just because they won’t have the help they need,” Padilla said.

Malloy said he’s not concerned about the current staff handling the second wave of enrollments.

“If it was mid-stream after a terrible disaster, like a certain other project run by the national government, it would be bad,” Malloy said. “But the reality is that we have already done what no other state did and that is to reach the kinds of levels of participation that we have.”

He said it’s in the best interest of Connecticut that Counihan go help the federal government get their program in order because national news coverage of technology glitches with the federal exchange slowed enrollment in Connecticut.

“People just assumed we were down when the federal government was down,” Malloy said. “It is very important to the overall effort that the federal side get its act together and I think they’ve hired somebody who can do that.”

Wyman said there will be an interim CEO appointed and she anticipated most of the senior staff will remain at Access Health CT.

One question that’s remained unanswered as yet is whether those who purchased insurance plans through the exchange will have to renew their exchange enrollment status if they decide to stay with the same insurance carrier.