Health insurance exchange bill doesn’t make it out of House

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Published: March 24,2008

On the heels of a summit last month that featured policy experts who said access and delivery systems of healthcare need reforming, three statewide organizations have thrown their support behind Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to create a state health insurance exchange.

In a press conference held in his Capitol office March 13, Barbour was joined by the Mississippi Association of Realtors (MAR), the Mississippi Medical Association (MMA) and the state’s affiliate of the National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, in calling for the state House to approve a measure that would create a health insurance exchange. The Senate approved the bill 52-0. It didn’t fare as well in the House, dying in committee March 18.

Rep. Walter Robinson, D-Bolton, chair of the House Insurance Committee, said in a conference call that the bill’s failure in the House was not a political stab at Barbour.

“Anything that can help people, I’m for it,” Robinson said. “But I’ve got to know who I’m helping. I don’t want anybody taking advantage of it.”

Barbour quoted figures that say 18%, or approximately 130,000, of Mississippi’s population is without health insurance. Most of those, says Barbour, work for small businesses.

An exchange would provide small businesses help with the administrative side of health insurance, make policies tax deductible to employers and employees and allow for policies to become portable. That, in turn, would shift ownership of the policy from employers to employees.

“It gives employees much more control,” Barbour said, comparing the format to the one currently used by federal employees. “It’s an absolute win-win situation.”

The version of the bill passed in the Senate makes eligible for the exchange business with 50 or fewer employees.

“We’ve got to attack this uncompensated care,” said Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, chair of the Insurance Committee and one of the bill’s authors. “Partnering with the private sector is one solution.”

Clarke, speaking in the same conference call as Robinson, said the issue is “not dead for the long-term.”

“The cost of health insurance has been prohibitive for small businesses.”

A large group of the uninsured, according to the MAR, is real estate agents who work for small real estate agencies.

“Obviously we’re very disappointed,” MAR CEO Angela Cain said of the bill’s not making it out of the House. “Healthcare is one of our top priorities.” Cain said officials from her group have scheduled to trip to Washington in May to meet with Mississippi’s congressional delegation to discuss ways to improve access and affordability to healthcare for its members.

If individuals could pay for their policies with pre-tax dollars, Barbour said, there would be no need for a health insurance exchange. But they can’t, so there is a critical need for a mechanism that gives the same power to employees as the current system does to employers — the ability to purchase health insurance with pre-tax money.

That is the argument of the medical community, which bears the financial brunt of uncompensated care, says Patrick Barrett of the MMA.

“(An exchange) fits quite well with our national medical policy,” Barrett said. “It makes insurance more affordable.

“People think there is a medical care crisis. There isn’t. There is a medical finance crisis. With this, we would be a long way toward solving what most Americans consider a medical crisis.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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