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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published January 18 2011

North Dakota regulator wants health care authority

BISMARCK – Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm asked state lawmakers Monday to grant him explicit power to enforce provisions of the new federal health care law, even though Hamm and the GOP-controlled Legislature are skeptical of the overhaul.

Hamm told the North Dakota House’s Industry, Business and Labor Committee that he expects the state’s insurers will follow the law. However, he should have legal backup should an insurer balk at complying with a provision that state regulators would normally oversee, Hamm said.

If a company argued North Dakota insurance regulators lacked authority to enforce a provision of the health care overhaul, “you instantly have a situation where most companies would be following the law, with one not,” Hamm said. “As a regulator, I can tell you, that is a nightmare scenario.”

If such confusion resulted, the federal government may use the problem to exert more regulatory control of its own, he said.

Legislative committees this week are examining a number of proposals that would both implement the federal health care law and challenge its legitimacy. Recommendations on whether they should be approved are not expected for a few weeks.

Lawmakers have introduced bills intended to shield North Dakotans from any requirement that they be forced to buy health insurance, a key provision of the federal law that a federal judge has ruled is unconstitutional. The decision is being appealed.

The Industry, Business and Labor panel heard legislation Monday that would give the Insurance Department power to enforce provisions of the federal health care law; set up insurance “exchanges” that would offer a selection of health plans for individuals and small businesses; and outline a process for resolving benefit disputes.

Hamm said he believed state regulators should attempt to keep their authority over insurance disputes in cases where they already have jurisdiction, rather than ceding it to the federal government.

The Insurance Department should operate the insurance exchange, Hamm said, even though the exchange’s health offerings will be similar whether or not the state or the federal government runs them.

“We have two choices. We can either decide to control our own fate . . . or we can let the federal government do it for us,” Hamm said. “It’s a close call ... but I come down on the side of having the state control these issues.”

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