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NH panel balks at health overhaul changes

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — An attempt to bring New Hampshire’s insurance rules in line with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) ran into a roadblock Tuesday when Republican senators cast it as another attempt to circumvent legislative authority.

By a 3-2 vote along party lines, the Senate Commerce Committee recommended that the full Senate reject a bill requested by the state Insurance Department.

Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny said the bill would alleviate confusion among insurance companies, agents, consumers and small businesses who are trying to plan for next year. Without it, the federal government will regulate all individual and small group insurance products in the state, not just those related to the health overhaul, he said.

According to the insurance department, the bill adopts the federal definition of “employee” for insurance purposes, eventually aligns the state’s definition of “small employer” with the federal standard of 100 or fewer workers and makes other changes, while preserving the state’s regulatory control and its ability to enforce additional consumer protections.

But Republicans who voted against the bill in committee Tuesday called it the latest in a series of moves by the department and the governor’s office to have the state operate the online insurance markets required under the federal law.

A state law passed during the last session prohibits the state from setting up its own markets, or exchanges, but Gov. Maggie Hassan decided in February to have the state partner with the federal government to manage the health plans offered through the markets and to provide consumer assistance. The decision by the first-term Democrat didn’t sit well with Republicans, and implementing the federal law has been slowed by persistent disagreements about who has the final say, the governor and insurance department or lawmakers.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, argued that the state should step aside since it will only get pre-empted by the federal government anyway.

“All I’ve seen since February is New Hampshire moving closer and closer to a state-based exchange,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “It’s a federal law, it’s a responsibility of the federal government to implement it.”

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, agreed, and accused Hassan and the insurance department of trying to craft policy instead of implement it. He also argued that the people of New Hampshire, and the rest of the country, “overwhelmingly” oppose the federal health overhaul law.

Hassan responded that Senate Republicans were putting ideology ahead of the interests of New Hampshire residents and businesses.

“By killing HB 668, the Senate would make it more difficult to protect Granite State consumers, cause unnecessary confusion for all those looking to sell and purchase insurance, and potentially increase health insurance costs for families, businesses and individuals,” she said.

According to the Granite State Poll conducted by the UNH Survey Center last month, 49 percent of New Hampshire adults oppose the legislation, 34 percent favor it and 17 percent were neutral or didn’t know enough about it to say. Those figures have fluctuated over the last two years, with support peaking at 43 percent last October and opposition peaking at 57 percent in February 2010.

Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia, who supports the bill, acknowledged that the public is split on the federal law but said New Hampshire should try to control its implementation rather than defer to the federal government. He said the bill’s opponents were setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy and predicted they will later point out problems and say “I told you so,” after being obstructionists who refused to help the process along.

“We may not like the Affordable Care Act, we may have problems with it, but the fact is, it’s the law of the land,” he said.