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Business outnumbers consumers on NC health panel; conflict of interest concerns raised

RALEIGH — Whether North Carolina makes health insurance as easy for individuals and small businesses to shop for as a plane ticket on a travel website could be left up to an oversight board on which business interests outnumber consumer advocates.

The House Health and Human Services Committee today approved a rewrite of a proposal to create the state’s health benefit exchange, the marketplace designed to offer affordable private health plans to those who now have the hardest time finding coverage.

States must create their own health benefit exchanges by 2014 or the federal government will do it for them under terms of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul law passed a year ago.

“This would give the federal government unprecedented control over the local insurance market,” said Rep. Jerry Dockham, R-Davidson, a former insurance agency owner and bill co-sponsor.

The Republican-written bill would give six permanent seats on the 12-member oversight board to big business, small business, insurers, hospitals and doctors, three seats to technical experts and two places to people representing the public. The state’s insurance commissioner would head the panel.

Guaranteed spots include representative recommended by the state’s chamber of commerce and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. The NFIB’s national office is involved in a lawsuit to block the health overhaul law, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has advocated scrapping the health care law.

Consumer advocates contend the panel that will oversee how the new competitive marketplace takes shape would have built-in conflicts of interest.

“These are people who have a financial obligation to benefit their industry,” said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who sponsored a Democratic version of the health exchange bill.

The legislation also does not direct the governing board to structure insurance plan choices with the same benefits, so that consumers can easily make direct comparisons of policies, said Adam Linker, a policy analyst with the North Carolina Health Access Coalition.

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