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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Senate committee supports wait-and-see approach on health care exchange

CONCORD – Torn between whether to embrace or block creation of a state health exchange, a state Senate committee chose neither Tuesday.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, has championed a House-passed bill, HB 1297, that not only would ban a state health exchange but would also prevent state officials from cooperating with any Obama administration attempts to set one up.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Raymond White, R-Bedford, tried to convince the Senate Commerce Committee to embrace his 180-degree alternative: to set up a state health change that doesn’t put health insurance brokers like himself out of business.

Instead, the committee voted 3-1 to recommend interim study or a polite death for the O’Brien-backed measure.

Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, said no action is the proper course since the federal health insurance law is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We don’t know what the court is going to do with Obamacare, and because of that, we should be in a wait-and-see posture on whatever becomes of a state health exchange,” said Prescott, who chairs the Senate committee.

The federal Affordable Care Act requires all states to set up exchanges that will act as the clearinghouse for health insurance coverage of all those who get a federal subsidy, such as the poor on Medicaid and lower-income families enrolled in the Healthy Kids program.

While only about 20 states have set up exchanges, only New Hampshire and Utah have thus far refused to accept planning grants available to all states.

Last spring, the state Executive Council turned down the first installment for $660,000.

The House approved a bill, HB 1727, that would send back to the federal government another $330,000 of planning money for an exchange.

The state Senate on Wednesday is expected to kill that bill, as opponents note state officials have already concluded it’s too late for New Hampshire to use that planning money anyway.

Gov. John Lynch, a retiring four-term Democrat, urged the Republican-led Legislature in his State of the State speech to set up a state health change.

Both Lynch and White contend that New Hampshire won’t like the outcome if the federal government takes control of the exchange.

But O’Brien and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Andrew Manuse, R-Derry, maintain that creating an exchange or allowing help to one would amount to tacit support of the Obama health care mandate.

A number of business groups and major insurance companies have gotten on board with White’s concept, but it ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from conservative groups such as Cornerstone Action and Americans for Prosperity.

That’s why the Senate tabled or quietly killed a White bill on the same subject last February.

Some groups at the liberal end of the ideological spectrum have failed to get on board out of fear that the insurance companies would have too much control over a state exchange, as the proposal is written.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).