Some Republicans Now Backing Health Care Exchange

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A plan to set up a state-regulated health insurance marketplace is getting a second chance in the Montana Legislature.

Republican legislative leaders have often spoken out against the Obama administration’s federal health care law, part of which calls for state-run health care exchanges that offer people a choice of health plans with a range of coverage levels and pricing.

Many Republicans call it an unjust mandate that unfairly taxes Montanans, and a Democrat-backed plan to set up an insurance exchange in line with the federal act was stopped in committee last month.

Now House Bill 620, sponsored by Republican Rep. Tom Berry of Roundup, is giving the proposal a second life. Berry’s bill would set up the state health insurance exchange that Democrats have asked for, but it would also give insurance companies more power in the regulation of the exchange to appeal to critics of the federal health care law.

Berry’s measure is being billed as a state protection from the federal mandate and a compromise measure that favors neither side in the health care debate. Democratic Rep. Chuck Hunter of Helena, who sponsored the previous attempt, said he is now backing Berry’s bill and expects a number of other Democrats and Republicans to do so as well.

Opponents of the measure said Tuesday during a committee hearing on the bill that nothing should be done to facilitate the federal health care overhaul.

Support came from insurance companies, health care advocates and the Schweitzer administration.

Insurance agents said the bill would protect them from a federally mandated exchange, which they said would leave them in the cold. Other supporters were hesitant about the incorporation of insurers on the proposed nine-member board that would regulate the exchange.

Supporters’ interests differed but they seemed to compromise on the necessity of setting up a state-run exchange rather than taking no action at all.

The Montana insurance commissioner’s office supported the measure even though it had previously supported the Democrat proposal that stalled in committee. Jesse Laslovich, speaking for the office called the measure a “tenuous bipartisan solution” that left no one completely happy.

Laslovich said the proposal is a statement that, “the risks of doing nothing far exceed the benefits and that Montanans ought to create an exchange and not Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.”

It was clear Tuesday that the compromise effort didn’t go far enough for some opponents of the federal health care overhaul. Republican Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge opposed the measure; Priest has backed several measures against federal health care plans including one to compel the Montana attorney general to join a federal lawsuit against the U.S. health care program.

Priest said the federal act excludes key business owners and Berry’s measure could not fix what he called a broken piece of federal legislation.

“The citizens of Montana are looking for you guys to stick up for them and do the right thing, please don’t implement legislation because you are afraid of the federal government.” Priest said.

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