Mar 17, 2008

It's alive! Michigan health-care reform package is resuscitated

After months of negotiations and hearings, a package of bills aimed at reforming health coverage in the state may be pushed through the Michigan Senate within days.

The Senate Health Policy Committee, chaired by Tom George, R-Kalamazoo, a medical doctor, has been holding hearings on House Bills 5282-5285, known collectively as the Individual Market Reform package. The committee received the bills from the House last fall. Versions of the complex and controversial package are to be considered in the next week or two.

The bills, whch are backed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, would change and update the rules for individual health insurance coverage as more and more employers choose to end coverage for employees to cut costs. The individual health care market was once just a very small piece of the health insurance business, but it is growing larger fast as employers eliminate care.

Proponents of the bills say that, if passed,they would prevent insurance carriers from increasing rates for people who get sick during their coverage period, establish uniform criteria for all insurers and create a fair and competitive playing field for all consumers and insurers. Opponents say the bills would eliminate competition, increase costs and reduce access to health care.

Blue Cross is tax-exempt in Michigan, and in exchange they are the insurer of last resort, meaning they cannot turn anyone down for health coverage. They also administer Medicare and MI Child in the state.

The four-bill package was introduced last October, passed quickly by the House on Oct. 24 and sent to the Senate. The bills had bipartisan support in the House, with two of the four bills in the package sponsored by Republicans, and it was thought they would be signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm before Christmas. But opponents of the bills slowed the Senate process to a crawl.

Some strange political bedfellows have joined forces to oppose the bills, including the United Auto Workers, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican, and the Gray Panthers of Metro Detroit.

Legislative offices of both parties have received numerous letters, emails and phone calls for and against the bills. Many letters of support have come from Blues employees, while opposition has come from employees of other insurance providers in the state. A group calling itself the Coalition For a Fair and Competitive Insurance Market formed in opposition to the bills. The coalition consists of other insurers in the state, including AAA of Michigan, Auto-Owners and Citizens Insurance.

On Thursday.the coalition launched a web site called "Stop the Bluesopoly." In the press release announcing the new site, the coalition said it is particularly concerned about HB 5284 and 5285 because they do not deal with individual health insurance. The coalition says that the bills will enable the Blues to spend subscriber dollars to expand their monopoly rather than reduce subscriber rates.

“These two bills open the door for Blue Cross Blue Shield to use the tax-free billions it has accumulated to purchase any business, such as a hospital, casino, flower shop or restaurant,” said Kurt Gallinger, vice president and counsel for Amerisure Companies and a member of the coalition. “Allowing the Blues to enter other markets and use their tax-exempt status to unfairly compete could drive out other competition and extend its monopoly into any business.”

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