Signaling fresh movement in its negotiations with the federal government on a plan to provide health care for low-income Pennsylvanians, the Corbett administration on Thursday opened the bidding process for private insurers to provide coverage for 600,000 people.

The development comes a month after Gov. Corbett expressed deep frustration with the lack of movement in talks with federal Medicaid officials and threatened to pull the plug on his "Healthy PA" plan.

But officials on Thursday said they were now confident that the program would be up and running by Jan. 1, 2015, even though the federal government has yet to sign off on the plan.

"The negotiations are in a good spot," said Jennifer Branstetter, Corbett's secretary of planning and policy.

The administration is posting requests for proposals on its Healthy PA website. It hopes to secure at least two insurance providers for each of the nine regions in Pennsylvania.

t will finalize the providers by Aug. 1, officials said.

The "Healthy PA" proposal, which has drawn criticism from some low-income health care advocates and Democrats, would use federal Medicaid dollars to pay private insurers for coverage.

Like other states, such as Arkansas, that have chosen to pursue a private option, Pennsylvania must first get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Pennsylvania plan goes further than existing state plans by requiring both monthly premiums of between $25 and $35 for many new and existing recipients and mandating those who get coverage to engage in a job search.

The administration has since said it would delay the rollout of those requirements into the second year.

"We recognize that most if not all of those eligible are working to some degree," said Branstetter.

The 25 states that accepted full Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act started offering coverage in January with the federal government footing the bill until 2016.

Critics say Pennsylvania's delay is costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to provide health care to the uninsured.

If Pennsylvania launches its plan next January it will have lost a year of full federal coverage. The federal contribution drops to 90 percent after the third year.

In addition to the job-search requirements and premiums, some benefits and services would be reduced or eliminated for the current 2.2 million Medicaid recipients. Among the services that would no longer be covered are chiropractic care, podiatry, optometry and some transportation.

Corbett administration officials say they are still negotiating on those issues but said they could not indicate when they might get the go-ahead from Washington.

"We hope the full waiver will be approved but if we have to modify it we will," said Branstetter. "We share the same goal to increase coverage and that can't happen till the waiver's approved."

-Amy Worden

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