Mo. House Bill Would Expand Access to Health Insurance

April 12, 2007

Missourians lacking health insurance because of its high cost and their personal health problems could find it easier to get coverage under legislation given initial approval by the House.

The measure also would make it easier for some people to keep their individual health care policies when they change jobs.

The legislation is touted as a means of chipping away at the number of uninsured Missourians, which is estimated at 700,000. But Rep. Doug Ervin, R-Kearney, said he has no projection of how many people actually would take advantage of his bill.

Ervin was joined by Gov. Matt Blunt and Republican legislative leaders two months ago in proposing the creation of a quasi-governmental agency to administer private health insurance plans for employees of small businesses.

But that proposal was dropped after vigorous opposition from the insurance industry, which opposed the new agency and the merging of the small-group and individual health insurance markets.

An insurance industry lobbyist expressed no opposition to the significantly revamped bill, which was given first-round House approval by a voice vote. Another House vote is needed to send it to the Senate.

The bill’s “goal is to try to get more folks insured, and we support that,” said Brent Butler, government affairs director for the Missouri Insurance Coalition. “I think it can do some good.”

The legislation would expand the eligibility and lower the premiums for people to be covered by the Missouri Health Insurance Pool, a government-supervised program created in 1991 to provide private insurance to people who cannot get or afford it.

The bill would allow people to qualify for the pool when their health insurance premiums are 1.5 times the standard rate, instead of the current requirement of three times the standard rate.

About 3,000 Missourians currently are covered under the high-risk pool, said Emily Kampeter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration. They pay a premium that presently is set at 1.78 times the standard rate, but which could go up to twice the standard rate.

Under the bill, people covered under the high-risk pool could not be charged more than 1.35 times the standard rate.

Kampeter said the department is still analyzing how many additional people might be covered by the high-risk pool, and what that would cost the state.

Another part of the bill would allow people with individual health insurance policies to keep their coverage when they go to work for a business that offers its employees a small-group health care plan. Instead of enrolling in that group plan, the individual could chose to receive a tax-free employer contribution toward his or her individual health insurance premiums.

“What we’re doing is offering small employers an alternative to the traditional market,” Ervin said.

Ervin wants to move toward an “ownership model” of health insurance, where employees choose health policies similar to what already occurs with homeowner, automobile and life insurance.

But Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, expressed concern that Ervin’s legislation would further fragment the health insurance market.

“I’m not against doing something for small businesses,” Baker said. But “it’s being touted as doing something when, in fact, there’s going to be very little effect.”

Insurance bill is HB818.

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