Originally created 04/01/97

Premiums may go up under law

ATLANTA - Virtually all Georgians would be able to switch jobs but retain health care benefits, under newly passed legislation awaiting the governor's review.

However, the bill - if signed into law - could bring higher premiums, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said Monday.

Any rate hike would be much smaller than has occurred in other states that have implemented the Kennedy-Kassebaum federal insurance reform law approved last year.

"We took a more conservative approach," said Mr. Oxendine, who helped write Georgia's bill carrying out the federal law.

The federal and state laws address the issues of portable health benefits - addressing the common consumer complaint that employers' lack of adequate coverage frightens employees who find decent insurance into "job lock."

That has been especially true for Georgians currently being treated for a long-term illness. Insurers could deny new coverage, claiming the worker had a "pre-existing" illness.

Mr. Oxendine pushed legislation in 1995 guaranteeing portability of insurance coverage to people covered by private insurance companies.

However, most Georgians are currently covered by other policies, such as self-insured or government plans not included in that law.

Congress' measure made states approve more comprehensive portability laws. Those that didn't would be subject to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"If we had not done anything, health insurance rates would really go up," Mr. Oxendine predicted, because the federal government would have mandated more benefits.

State lawmakers gave final approval to legislation last week guaranteeing insurance portability for virtually all Georgians and opening up enrollment in insurance plans for people working in small businesses, even if the person has a pre-existing illness.

Georgia's bill is more conservative than that of other states because it does not force insurance companies to provide coverage to everyone, no matter their condition.

Such a system, Mr. Oxendine said, rewards people who don't buy insurance until they get sick.

Critics say the new bill does too little for people who currently don't have any insurance.

A study released last week showed about a third of Georgia's children are without health coverage.

Mr. Oxendine's office doesn't have the authority to set health insurance rates, which is done by the companies. However, staffers in Mr. Oxendine's office estimate the changes in the state law will increase premiums 2 to 4 percent.

That's small compared with what happened in such states as New York, where rates skyrocketed after much broader guaranteed coverage was mandated.

"I don't think we know exactly what this will do to rates," the commissioner said. "Consumers will be receiving an enhanced product. An enhanced product will quite probably be more expensive."


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