State panel backs health-care purchasing alliances

A legislative commission studying how small groups can poll their resources in buying health insurance is backing legislation that would let chambers of commerce and trade associations form a purchasing alliance to keep premiums down.

The Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce hopes to be the first of these new players in the market if the bill passes. The study commission – which announced its support for House Bill 515 — explored, but rejected the idea of teaming up with other New England states to form regional purchasing consortiums.

The differences in laws and rules among states made the idea unworkable, according to Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, commission chairman.

“The most feasible approach for New Hampshire may be to implement innovative benefit designs which encourage employers to think about purchasing health-care services rather than health insurance,” Clark wrote in a report the commission approved, 3-2. “The idea is to try and make health care providers more cost effective.”

A House Commerce subcommittee voted 4-0 last month to endorse HB 515. At the bill’s public hearing in the spring, representatives of the Portsmouth, Nashua, Manchester and Portsmouth chambers spoke for the bill, but lobbyists for several HMOs opposed it.

Chris Hodgdon, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers his 750 member firms face a crisis over the cost of health benefits. But Brian Quigley, regional director for America’s Health Insurance Plans, warned that HB 515 would fragment the market and drive up costs.

“It would have the unintended effect of increasing market volatility and risk segmentation, causing higher premiums and a rise in the number of uninsured individuals,” Quigley said.

Gov. John Lynch has scheduled a press conference Thursday at 10:30 a.m. to present his plans to implement the major insurance reform law for 2005, Senate Bill 125, which itself was a major overhaul of SB 110.

SB 110 was designed to increase competition by attracting more health insurers into New Hampshire, but it also resulted in double- and triple-digit increases for many small businesses. — CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS SERVICE

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