Senate OKs sale of out-of-state health policies

A series of 20 amendments and a three-hour floor debate Tuesday failed to derail legislation that would allow health insurers to sell individual policies from other states that have fewer required coverages than under current Georgia law.

House Bill 47 passed the Georgia Senate largely along party lines, 37-17, after passionate arguments on both sides of the issue.

Georgia’s required benefits for individual health insurance policies include various screenings for cancer and coverage for mastectomies. They apply to health plans that are not offered by large, self-insured employers.

Consumer groups and legislators in the past battled hard to get these coverages approved by the General Assembly. A similar bill cleared the House last year but stalled in the state Senate.

Supporters said House Bill 47 will lower costs for people to buy insurance. Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta) said the legislation ’’is about saving lives’’ by helping more people afford health coverage.

An estimated 20 percent of the state’s residents, or about 1.9 million people, were without health insurance in 2009, the latest year for which Census Bureau statistics are available.

But Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) said the bill ‘’would undermine consumer protections’’ for Georgians who purchase insurance.

The string of amendments served as a filibuster-like device, with opponents trying to make an exception for various mandated benefits. Individual amendments were offered that, one by one, would have exempted from the bill Georgia’s required coverages for  mammograms and Pap smears, asthma inhalers, ovarian cancer testing, chlamydia screening, female contraception prescriptions, direct access to ob/gyns, mastectomies,  cancer drugs, and treatment of dependent children with cancer.

“These amendments are about saving lives,’’ Orrock said. “Insurance companies’ bottom line is to make profits.’’

She said no other state has a similar law.

Individual insurance policies represent just about 5 percent of Georgia’s health insurance market.

But individual coverage has created many problems for Georgia consumers, a 2009 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found.

Senators approved a couple of the 20 amendments, though none involving individual benefits. One amendment that passed requires each insurance policy to contain a side-by-side comparison of benefits covered by the out-of-state policy and Georgia’s required benefits.

Female House members lined the walls of the Senate chamber during the beginning of the debate. Many of the mandated benefits pertain to health coverage for women.

Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Marietta), who opposed the bill, said before the final vote, “This is a stupid thing if we allow it to happen. This is an insurance company gift.’’

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) countered that mandated benefits increase the cost of health insurance by 20 percent to 50 percent.

A second bill that would create a commission to study the effect of insurance mandates has passed both houses.