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February 04. 2013 8:27PM

Legislative committee debates provision of health care act

CONCORD - Republican members of an oversight committee sparred with the state Insurance Department on Monday over who gets the final say on committing the state to a key element of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

States face a Feb. 15 deadline to notify the federal government if they will participate with the federal government in a partnership exchange to help consumers and businesses find health insurance.

"A state law set up the Joint Legislative Committee on Health Care Reform, which includes three Republicans and three Democrats. The decision of how to move forward rests solely with this oversight committee," said Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford. "We feel relatively strongly that we have that power."

The partnership exchange would identify qualified health plans that meet federal standards for benefits as well as caps on deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket expenses.

States have the option of creating a state-based partnership exchange, but a law passed last year prohibits that in New Hampshire.

For states that do not adopt the state-based exchange, the federal government will set up an exchange.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has been expected to send a formal document to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, enrolling New Hampshire in a federally facilitated exchange. Marc Goldberg, the governor's communications director said Hassan has "full authority to communicate with the federal government about the approach the state would like to pursue," but would not say whether that authority means she doesn't need approval from the committee to sign the state up for the partnership exchange.

The law creating the committee gives it the power to "determine all policies within the state of New Hampshire regarding implementation of the (Affordable Care) Act."

Republican members of the committee say it means the committee must approve the partnership exchange. However, Jennifer Patterson, the Insurance Department's lawyer on health insurance issues, said a specific provision of the law gives the commissioner authority over insurance programs and takes precedence over general powers of the committee.

Patterson told the committee that the Insurance Department has recommended that Hassan sign the declaration letter committing the state to the partnership exchange, but declined to reveal the contents of a draft it provided the governor. The oversight committee membership is even split with three Democrats and three Republicans, meaning a vote to either approve or disapprove enrolling the state would likely result in a tie vote.

The political standoff has each party blaming the other. The Republican State Committee accused the governor of failing to disclosing the cost of "Obamacare" to New Hampshire residents.

"Governor Hassan needs to immediately start working in a transparent and bipartisan manner with our legislature before she moves forward with the formation of a partnership exchange," the statement from the committee said.

State Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley said that after getting a law passed to ban a New Hampshire state exchange program, Republicans are now trying to block a state-federal partnership to meet requirements of the health care law.

"Apparently, the GOP would prefer to  leave health coverage for our families up to the federal government, a shocking  departure," Buckley said. Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny said the department has simply responded to what it believes it is required to do under the federal law.

"I don't pretend that we try to tell the committee what it has authority to do," Sevigny said. "That's not our job, our job is not to get into the politics of what is going on anywhere."

billsmith@unionleader.com


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