The Connecticut legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee has devoted much of its time and energy in recent years to understanding the rising cost of health care — and putting forth legislation to regulate it.
Among the priorities this year for Rep. Kerry Wood, a Rocky Hill Democrat who co-chairs the committee, was passing a bill that would allow industry associations to offer large group health plans to their members — a proposal trade groups say would go a long way to reducing health insurance costs for many small businesses and nonprofits.
The bill was strongly opposed by patient advocacy groups and Connecticut’s health care advocate, Ted Doolittle, who were concerned the proposed health plans would discriminate against people who get sick or injured. Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, filibustered the bill ahead of a committee vote in March, questioning Wood for hours over various aspects of the legislation.
But on Friday, after weeks of discussions and just days before the 2023 legislative session comes to a close, a rewritten version of the bill received Doolittle’s reluctant support.
“I am not enthusiastic, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction,” Doolittle said.
The latest version of the bill offers stronger consumer protections, including limits on the percentage by which an association health plan can raise premiums for any small business member of the plan, should employees of that business get sick or injured.
House leaders said they could caucus the bill as soon as Friday, as they’d been waiting for the health care advocate to sign off on it.
“On balance, I think it’s a good thing,” Doolittle said. But he called out the insurance industry “for making this necessary.”
In recent years, many small businesses facing the rising cost of standard health insurance plans have been switching over to a complex option known as “level-funded” plans, which aren’t regulated by the state insurance department. Employers pay a monthly rate based on an estimate of what their health care costs will be and often take out another layer of insurance to cover catastrophic costs.
Patient advocates vehemently oppose level-funded plans, which they say discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.
And while H.B. 6710 allows for plans that bear similarities to level-funded arrangements, the proposed association health plans would be overseen by Connecticut regulators — covering all essential benefits under the Affordable Care Act and all diseases and conditions mandated under state law.
Wood said she was proud of the compromise reached in the new version of the bill, through negotiations with the governor’s office, the Office of Health Strategy, the Insurance Department, the health care advocate and other lawmakers and stakeholders.
“They’ve run this up the flagpole to their colleagues in other states that regulate these plans, and they said, ‘We love what you guys did,’” Wood said. “The bill has answered everyone’s concerns at this point, and it should receive majority support.”
Lesser said Friday he wasn’t sure yet whether he’d support the bill if it comes up for a vote in the Senate. “This specific proposal is something that’s been used around the country to try and undercut provisions of the Affordable Care Act.”
“We all share a common goal of lowering health care costs for small businesses. The question is whether this is the right approach,” Lesser said. “We have a lot of questions in the Senate, so we’re gonna have to see what the appetite is.”
Wood said if the bill becomes law, it’s the type of legislation she anticipates revisiting year after year, to make sure it’s fulfilling its intent.
“The world will change, people’s health will change, I just think this is a great backstop that will give us something to improve on,” she said.