WASHINGTON BUREAU — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy are backing bills that could eliminate health insurers’ and medical malpractice insurers’ access to the McCarran-Ferguson Act antitrust exemption.

Reid, D-Nev., and Leahy, D-Vt., talked about the antitrust exemption today at a Judiciary Committee hearing on S. 1681, the Senate’s Health Insurance Industry Antitrust Enforcement Act bill.

Leahy, who introduced S. 1681, is co-sponsoring the bill with Reid and 6 other Democratic senators.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced the House version of the bill, H.R. 3596, in the House.

“There is no reason why the insurance companies should have exemption from antitrust laws,” Reid said about the antitrust exemption in a statement issued as the Judiciary Committee hearing began. “To the extent insurance companies need to share information to provide their services, let them do what other industries have to do – seek prior authorization and guidelines from the Department of Justice for how they can work together.”

Health insurers “should be subject to the same federal oversight as every other industry,” Reid said. “Their price-setting and information sharing practices should not be permitted to take place out of public view, but should be brought out into the light of day.”

Leahy noted that, in the prior Congress, he joined with Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., “in introducing a much broader repeal of the insurance industry’s antitrust exemption.”

The new bill is a “scaled-back version directed at health insurance,” Leahy said. “Surely we can all agree that health insurers should not be permitted to fix prices, allocate markets, or to rig a bid.”

Christine Varney, an assistant U.S. attorney general at the U.S. Justice Department, expressed general support for repeal of the McCarran-Ferguson Act antitrust provisions, but not any particular bill.

“Repealing the McCarran-Ferguson Act would allow competition to have a greater role in reforming health and medical malpractice insurance markets than would otherwise be the case,” Varney said in a written version of her testimony.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, wrote in opposition to H.R. 3596 in a letter sent to the House last week.

McCarran-Ferguson “does not preclude regulation of insurers, but, instead recognizes that the states play a central role in conducting oversight of health and other insurers,” AHIP President Karen Ignagni writes in the letter.

“Health insurance is one of the most significantly regulated areas of the economy,” Ignagni writes.