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State health insurance 'reform' is making matters worse

Another View: State health insurance 'reform' is making matters worse
By BURT COHEN
Guest Commentary

WHICH COSTS you more: your mortgage or your health insurance? From talking to many neighbors, I know I’m not the only one whose health insurance premium has long since surpassed my mortgage. This is crazy.

But hang on to your seat. Thanks to a bill sponsored by Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, it’s going to get much worse. Prescott’s infamous Senate Bill 110, with Gov. Craig Benson’s active support, became law despite overwhelming evidence it would do great harm. Citizens of all political stripes are up in arms, as they should be.

The simple premise of SB 110 was that, by allowing market forces free rein, more health insurance companies would be drawn to New Hampshire, and health insurance costs would drop. My goodness, it didn’t turn out that way. The actual results are that insurance will now be cheaper for the young and healthy (who generally don’t even buy health insurance), but more expensive for the old and sick. Premiums are skyrocketing from 25 percent to 75 percent, or more, for small businesses and families across New Hampshire.

The argument for passing SB 110 was that insurance costs are high, so we’ve got to do something — anything. Well, actually no, not if it makes matters worse. I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s perceptive book “The March of Folly,” in which folly is defined as “government pursuit of a policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency involved . . . a policy which is perceived to be counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight.” SB 110 clearly fits that definition.

It was obvious at the time that SB 110 was about cherry picking. It enables insurance companies to make more money by being more selective in who they underwrite. They can now charge higher rates for small groups according to geographic region, as well as age or health. Any legislation that forces employers in the economically depressed North Country to pay more, shift costs to employees or drop health insurance altogether is completely counter-productive. It is not in our state’s best interest.

The public good is served when the healthy help pay the costs of caring for the sick. And it’s not like we have a choice in getting sick. While it is certainly fair to have bad drivers pay more for insurance, is it fair to charge the sick more for their unchosen predicament? Yet that’s exactly how SB 110 works.

Another odious part of the new law requires employees to fill out the “New Hampshire Family Health Statement” questionnaire. I’ve talked to many employers who hate being forced to ask these invasive questions of their loyal employees. It’s hard to imagine, but thanks to Sen. Prescott’s bill, today our New Hampshire government is prying deep into private personal information. You must list every health problem, and every medication taken by anyone in your family during the past five years. So here we have it: The state of New Hampshire, through SB 110, is now serving the interests of the health insurance industry against the interests of the citizens.

And what about Sen. Prescott’s claim that insurance companies would flood into New Hampshire? According to the Insurance Commission, since the bill became law in January, just one insurance company has come to this state, period. The three or four others who may come had signaled their intent to enter the market prior to SB 110’s passage.

And it’s not just patients who are getting whacked by our insurance mess. Ask your physician what he or she thinks of SB 110. To them it means a huge amount of new paperwork, with no benefit to anybody. Except, of course, the insurers.

Yes, we have to do something. More and more health care providers are coming to the conclusion that it’s time to create a national solution, something like an expanded Medicare system.

New Hampshire’s new experiment is not a solution. It’s a big problem, and it’s getting worse. The fact is that people across America are struggling with health care costs that are out of reach. Allowing cherry picking by the insurers does not help; it causes harm. Prescott’s puzzling plan is no fix at all. It merely makes a bad problem worse. Voters can take this matter into their own hands. Before you cast a vote in November, it would serve you well to ask your Senate or House candidate how he or she feels about repealing SB 110.

Burt Cohen is a Democratic state senator from New Castle.