Out-of-state insurance law does nothing yet

It was pitched as a way to provide cheaper health insurance for uninsured Georgians.

House Bill 47 would let health insurers in Georgia sell policies from states that have fewer coverage requirements.

Proponents said these out-of-state policies, stripped of Georgia’s mandates, would have lower premiums – and allow more people to afford individual health insurance coverage.

The high-profile legislation was passed by the Legislature last year and signed into law.

But a year later, nothing has happened. No insurer here has started selling a non-Georgia health plan.

The state Insurance Commissioner’s office says it fielded some inquiries as regulations were being written, but that nothing has yet been offered.

Experts speculate that health insurers, here and elsewhere, have their focus squarely on the pending Supreme Court decision on the 2010 federal health care law – and don’t want to offer a policy that may soon be extinct.

“Insurance companies are taking their cues from the federal level,’’ Cindy Zeldin, executive director of the consumer group Georgians for a Healthy Future, said Monday.

If the health care law, known more formally as the Affordable Care Act, survives in court, it will trump the effect of the Georgia law. The federal law calls for states to define an ‘‘essential benefits package’’ to be offered to individuals and small businesses who enter health insurance exchanges in 2014.

Those policies would be required to have much richer benefits than the stripped-down policies encouraged by the Georgia legislation.

But if the high court strikes down the federal reform law, insurers in Georgia may switch gears and offer out-of-state plans, Zeldin added.

Graham Thompson, executive director of the Georgia Association of Health Plans, which represents major insurers, said selling any policy, including those from states other than Georgia, “is an individual plan decision.”

Thompson, though, acknowledged “a lot of uncertainty around the Supreme Court ruling.’’

“Plans operating in Georgia are committed to offering an affordable product,’’ Thompson said.

Last year, House Bill 47 was supported by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. Wyoming had passed a similar law in 2010.

Supporters argued that a single man, for example, would not need a policy covering mammograms — required under Georgia law — and shouldn’t have to pay for such coverage.

The lead sponsor, Rep. Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City), said the bill would ‘‘put more power into the hands’’ of consumers to choose whatever benefits they wanted. Coverages would be spelled out to consumers before they purchased a policy, he said.

Ramsey could not be reached for comment Monday on the situation since the bill became law.

The bill was strongly opposed last year by consumer groups such as the American Cancer Society, which said it would allow insurance policies to not cover essential cancer screenings.

Georgia’s insurance mandates include requirements for health policies to cover screenings for cervical, prostate and colorectal cancer, along with mammograms. An out-of-state policy without those coverages could be sold here under the new law.

Consumer groups and legislators in the past fought hard battles to get these types of insurance requirements approved by the General Assembly.

Zeldin said last year that the legislation could create a separate class of insurance benefits that would attract the young and healthy. That, in turn, would leave a group of older and sicker people in existing health insurance groupings, and thus push their costs even higher, she said.

“People with high medical needs would be priced out’’ of insurance, she said.

Both sides of the issue agreed on one thing: Georgia has a problem with its high number of uninsured.

The Georgia law applies only to policies sold to individuals, and that’s only about 5 percent of the state’s health insurance marketplace.

Georgia’s market for individual coverage has often proved troublesome for consumers. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2009 found that individual policies accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of consumer insurance complaints investigated by state regulators.

About 2 million Georgians, or 20 percent of residents, lack health insurance.