LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan officials argued Tuesday that they will face "serious challenges" selling health insurance next year if state lawmakers don't quickly approve legislation that would transform the organization from a charitable trust to a customer-owned nonprofit.
Meanwhile, critics of overhauling the state's largest insurer countered that the urgency is overblown and that moving too rapidly might be more harmful to Blue Cross' 4.4 million customers.
Mark Cook, Blue Cross' vice president of governmental operations, told the House Insurance Committee that changes being ushered in by the federal Affordable Care Act make it necessary to level the playing field for the insurer and its rivals.
For operating as the state's so-called insurer of last resort — meaning it must provide insurance coverage regardless of a customer's health status — Blue Cross has been exempt from paying several local and state taxes. The measures proposed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, endorsed by Blue Cross and passed last month by the Senate require the company to begin to pay those taxes, which Blue Cross estimates will average $100 million annually.
Even though it would lose its tax-exempt status, Blue Cross says the change in classification — and the lower government regulation that goes with it — is essential for it to be able to compete with other insurers under the Affordable Care Act.
Under the federal law, Blue Cross must have its products and rates ready by March for an online health exchange where people can compare and buy their own insurance plans, but the organization won't make it because of the way it's currently regulated by the state.
"We're going to have serious challenges participating in the ... marketplace," Cook said. "Our problem is the regulatory structure wouldn't allow us to function on the exchange in the same way as competitors. ... We're probably past where we should be."
It would join 12 other Blue Cross Blue Shield companies nationwide structured as mutual insurers. Those companies operate in 14 states.
Supporters say the overhaul is designed to modernize Blue Cross, which is governed by a separate state law from other insurers and typically waits much longer for its rate changes to be reviewed. They also note the federal health care law scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2014, requires that every insurer offer health insurance regardless of health status.
Still, critics say urgency shouldn't come at the expense of accuracy. Don Hazaert, director of the advocacy-based Michigan Consumers for Healthcare, recommended during testimony that lawmakers could pass a one-time waiver for Blue Cross get its insurance products on the exchange and then deal with the bill that he says is "reckless" in its current form.