Feb. 06--HELENA -- A bill giving the state insurance commissioner power to review increases in health insurance premiums -- a proposal related to federal health care reform -- easily won support of a House committee Wednesday.
The House Business and Labor Committee voted 19-1 to advance House Bill 87, a key proposal this session from state Auditor Monica Lindeen, who is Montana's insurance commissioner.
The lopsided vote is a big change from two years ago, when Republicans in the Legislature killed a similar proposal because it was associated with implementing the 2010 federal health care law, known as Obamacare.
This year, however, Lindeen's office agreed to remove from the bill any reference to federal law or regulations.
"The argument last session was, 'This is Obamacare,'" said Jesse Laslovich, Lindeen's chief counsel. With references to federal law out of the bill, "that argument was taken away, and it became more of a Montana-made solution."
If the bill passes the Legislature and becomes law, Lindeen's office will review health insurance premium increases to see whether they're "excessive, inadequate, unjustified or unfairly discriminatory."
If the office determines the rate increase is any of those things, it will post that information on its website.
The office won't have the power to force the insurer to lower its increase, but it should have leverage to perhaps negotiate a lower rate for consumers, officials from Lindeen's office said.
"Any insurer doesn't want to implement rates that the insurance commissioner's office says are too high," said Jennifer McKee, spokeswoman for Lindeen.
HB87, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, now heads to the House floor for debate and votes.
Requiring health insurers to justify premium increases is part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. States are supposed to review rate increases, but Montana is one of only three states without such review authority.
Federal health officials started reviewing premium increases in Montana in 2011, because Montana had no system of review. The state also had no power to do anything about rates found to be unreasonable.
Laslovich said if the bill becomes law, Lindeen's office would hire an actuary at a cost of about $200,000 a year to conduct the rate review of health insurance premiums in Montana.
Adam Schafer, deputy commissioner under Lindeen, said he'd heard the bill might face a close vote on the House committee, which is controlled 12-8 by Republicans.
"It was encouraging to see such strong support for the legislation," he said after the vote Wednesday morning.
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