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N.H. panel told health plan forums would be tricky

A bill aimed at providing New Hampshire residents more information about health plans offered under the federal health care overhaul law would be difficult to implement, lawmakers, consumer advocates and insurance officials said yesterday.

The measure before the Senate Commerce Committee would require the state insurance commissioner to hold at least two public hearings on each plan proposed for sale through the new online markets created by the law.

The bill stems from frustration over the narrow provider network created by the one company currently selling such health plans, but even Affordable Care Act critics on the committee expressed concern with the bill.

While they supported the goal of making the process more transparent, they noted several potential problems, including the logistics of scheduling so many hearings and the fact that details of the plans are considered proprietary until they take effect.

Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Bedford Republican, said he worried that making plan details public would deter insurers from entering the exchange or would give a competitive advantage to those who came forward later.

“I think we need to do something, but the business side of me turns around and says, ‘We have to be cautious that I’m not going to ask Anthem to lay all of its plans bare for the public while MVP or Meridian or whoever comes behind them has that opportunity to look at the plans before they go up on the stage to present theirs,’ ” he said. “It’s about trying to find that balance.”

Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Hampshire is the only insurer offering health plans through the exchange, and it has faced criticism for excluding 10 of the state’s 26 hospitals from its provider network. At least two other companies have said they plan to begin offering plans next year.

Because New Hampshire opted not to set up its own marketplace, or exchange, the federal government has the final say in approving plans, based on the state’s recommendations. Evaluating just Anthem’s 11 plans was extremely time-consuming last year, said Jennifer Patterson, an attorney for the state insurance department, and holding public hearings on potentially dozens more would be a burden given the department’s deadlines. Insurers will have to submit plans by May 1, with recommendations due to the federal government by July 31.

Evelyn Aissa of NH Voices for Health said the advocacy group supports giving the public a meaningful opportunity to learn about the plans and provide input, but she also questioned whether public hearings would accomplish that goal.

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