The New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange is preparing a test run of the exchange sign-up process and is looking for companies that do not have an established insurance plan to test the system. To participate in the test run, contact Jason Sandel at 505-334-6194.

More info: For more information on the exchange and its plans, go to www.nmhix.com.

FARMINGTON — The next phase of health care reform is right around the corner.

Starting Oct. 1, businesses with 50 or fewer employees, as well as individuals, can enroll for health insurance coverage through the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange, or NMHIX. Insurance coverage is effective starting Jan. 1, 2014. Employees under their employer's program can enroll in the exchange starting Nov. 1.

The New Mexico exchange is setting up its own small business exchange, the Small Business Health Options Program Exchange. Small businesses and their employees will be able to log into the exchange, compare health insurance plans and choose the options that best meet their needs.

By law, no one can be denied coverage.

New Mexico companies that choose to buy insurance for their employees on the state's exchange will be required to pay 50 percent of the cost of the policies. They must also ensure that at least half of their workers purchase insurance.

Individuals and families who are not obtaining insurance through a business can visit nmhix.com to start the process. But, for the first year, they will be directed to a federal site to administer the insurance. Eventually, the goal is that the state-run program will serve all residents.

"The concept of the exchange is to make it as easy as possible for individuals and businesses to get insurance," said Farmington City Councilor Jason Sandel, vice chairman of the state-run board.

Right now, about 400,000 New Mexicans are uninsured, Sandel said. In its first year, the state exchange hopes to enroll at least 84,000 people in the state program.

To prepare for the new system, the state exchange has partnered with companies such as Xerox Company and Poston & Associates to educate the public about insurance options.

Xerox will use its Alamogordo operations to implement a call center.

"The call center is a central hub where New Mexicans can call to find out where to enroll in the Exchange," said J.R. Damron, chair of the state exchange board, in a written statement. "We are lucky to have a firm operating in Alamogordo that has outstanding experience and capabilities to implement a very consumer-friendly call center."

Poston & Associates, a Bernalillo-based public relations firm, will offer outreach and education to help Native Americans understand their options for health care coverage.

The state exchange board also has authorized a Native American coordinator to help with communication between the exchange and the state's Native Americans.

"There are people on the reservation who don't have Internet or computers," Sandel said. "That's why we're making sure to reach out to everyone by having teams knocking on doors and hosting group symposiums. The outreach effort will be focused on a heavy media push and a very sophisticated marketing campaign."

Also to help with education, 200 enrollment sites will be established throughout the state. More than 370 health care guides will staff the sites.

"We are eager to start disseminating the materials for our 'Be Well' campaign," said Terraine Everhart, a member of the state exchange's board, in a written statement. "It provides information in a simple, straightforward manner on health coverage through the Exchange in a way that is creative and engaging."

Sandel acknowledged that some New Mexicans may choose to pay a penalty rather than obey the insurance mandate that goes into effect in 2014. In 2014, the penalty is $95 per adult and $47.50 per child, or 1 percent of a family's income, whichever amount is greater.

But, Sandel said, he hopes the exchange's efforts to educate people and simplify the process will encourage most people to obtain insurance.

"We have people now who continue to go to the emergency room at the hospital to get cured instead of getting insurance. That's the question: are people inherently good, or are they going to continue to drag on the system?" he said. "It is the genuine hope and desire of all involved that it will become socially acceptable to have insurance. And it's my bet that if we can change public sentiment, we might be able to insure some of these previously uninsured people."

Leigh Black Irvin covers health for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4610 and lirvin@daily-times.com Follow her @irvindailytimes on Twitter.