A provision in the House version of health care reform legislation designed to help small businesses get health insurance would allow a federal agency to crowd out insurance agents, a producer group says.

The National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, Alexandria, Va., said it fears the bill would allow the Small Business Administration to help businesses and individuals obtain affordable coverage, bypassing agents and brokers.

Under the bill, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, H.R. 3962, the SBA would design a healthcare insurance program for small businesses.

A bill provision, titled “Assistance for Small Employers,” is in essence a “navigators” program that drafters of health care reform promised would not be in the bill, according to Mike Becker, PIA national director of federal affairs.

A navigator is a government official who would help steer businesses and individuals toward an affordable health care plan.

Becker did say the PIA is “heartened” that the bill would allow insurance agents and brokers under state law to participate in providing coverage to individuals and employers in qualified health plans offered through insurance exchanges.

The PIA is concerned, however, about the SBA mandate, Becker said. It would give the SBA authority to provide educational activities to small businesses, which he described as a kind of navigators program.

SBA officials would be allowed to distribute information and provide enrollment and plan selection assistance for employers for health plans available under the Health Insurance Exchange created under the legislation, he said.

“In short, the SBA would be required to perform the functions of an insurance agency or brokerage for small groups of under 100,” Becker said. “Professional, independent insurance agents and brokers already perform all of the services for consumers that the bill would require the SBA to provide.”

Moreover, “a government-funded agency or third-party contractor could employ unlicensed individuals with no expertise in health insurance to perform functions that currently require state licensing,” he charged.

The American Benefits Council, Washington, was also critical of the bill.

The bill would not do enough to rein in soaring health costs “and will shift enormous new costs and burdens to employers who sponsor health insurance for their employees,” its officials said.

James Klein, president of the ABC, said the bill would jeopardize employer-sponsored coverage.

“We hope that, as reform legislation advances toward enactment, lawmakers will incorporate several of the provisions first developed by the Senate Finance Committee, which help avoid many of the destabilizing provisions embodied in the House bill,” Klein said.