Lawmakers vote to give insurers break on taxes

ATLANTA --- Georgia lawmakers couldn't agree on cuts to property or income taxes this legislative session, but they did manage to usher through legislation to provide $146 million to insurance companies over five years.

The insurance lobby pushed hard for the bill, which would eliminate the state and local insurance premium tax for high-deductible health plans. They argue the savings will be passed along to consumers.

Critics say there will be no way to know whether that ever happens because insurance bills aren't itemized.

"This is nothing more than a sweetheart deal for the insurance industry," Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said as the measure came up for a vote.

The Senate gave the bill final approval on the session's last day. Gov. Sonny Perdue has until mid-May to the sign the bill into law.

High-deductible health plans are a favorite of Republican health policy. Participants typically put money in tax-free health savings to pay medical expenses out-of-pocket until they meet a high yearly deductible, which can be several thousand dollars. Some preventive care -- such as annual pap smears and "well baby" visits -- are covered by the plans before the deductible is reached.

Such plans are attractive to people in their 20s and upper-income residents. Participants are likely healthy and don't expect big medical costs but are worried about catastrophic coverage for an accident or cancer.

But should the state be giving the plans favorable treatment over health plans that offer more comprehensive coverage?

Those in the insurance industry say it's one part of the puzzle.

Kirk McGhee, the executive director of the Georgia Health Plans Association, acknowledged the plans are geared more toward "younger people who'd rather buy the Mustang" than health insurance, he said. Still, he said those people might choose no insurance without an affordable option.

"The reason that these plans are attractive to us it that it is another opportunity to get to another segment of the marketplace," he said.