March 29, 2011

Compromise on health benefit exchange satisfies brokers

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Hundreds of health insurance brokers who were afraid the O’Malley administration’s health benefits exchange would put them out of business are now reasonably happy with the bill that passed the House of Delegates Monday and was reported to the Senate by its Finance Committee Monday night.

“Common ground has been found,” said Steve Salamon of Landmark Insurance, who chaired a coalition of brokers and employers to fight the bill. He complimented Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and his team and Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein for “reaching out to the broker community.”

doctor and patientThe health benefits exchange is a key component of last year’s Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama. The exchange is designed to provide an internet marketplace for people who don’t have health insurance to buy it an affordable price.

“We have a mutual goal with the administration: that every Marylander has affordable health care coverage,” said Salamon. His group represents hundreds of brokers who sell health insurance coverage from large carriers mainly to small businesses. “It really has been a situation where there has been significant dialogue.”

The legislation as amended limits the authority of the exchange to make changes in how health care is marketed, requiring it to come back to the legislature next year after it studies the options.

The original bill had the strong backing of health care advocates, but the medical society and other business groups, in addition to the brokers, raised strong concerns about how far reaching its powers could be.

Republican delegates had demanded the administration delay the implementation of what they call “Obamacare,” and some of them still opposed the measure in Monday’s 115-22 vote in the House.

When the bill came to the floor Friday, House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell wondered if “this bill as amended slows things down quite a bit because it turns the bill into a study.”

Del. Pete Hammen, chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee, said the legislation now “creates the structure” and “it studies a lot of things.”

“Before anything can be enacted, it has to come back to the governor and it has to come the General Assembly and we have to pass legislation to move forward,” Hammen said.

“This is dramatically different than when it was introduced,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a very, very different thing than when it came in.”

In an earlier interview, Hammen said, “We’re creating a framework for the exchange and asking them to study a lot.”

“Next year is going to be the big year,” Hammen said. “We’re going to be extremely busy dealing with health care reform issues.”

Salamon said the brokers “want a structure that allows jobs to be continued in this tough economy. That’s a good thing all the way around.”

The brokers were particularly concerned that the exchange would be a government agency potentially competing with them for business, as Massachusetts had done with its universal health insurance law.