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NH panel urges action on health overhaul funding

Holly Ramer, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- A committee advising New Hampshire agency heads on implementing the federal health overhaul law urged state lawmakers Friday to move quickly in accepting federal money intended for consumer assistance and outreach.

The Health Exchange Advisory Board, whose members represent consumers, health care providers, insurers and businesses, drafted a letter saying that given the timeline the state faces, effective outreach will be impossible unless the Legislature accepts the money soon. Beginning Oct. 1, consumers can enroll in coverage through health insurance marketplaces called "exchanges" established by the states or the federal government, with coverage starting Jan. 1.

"There's a truckload of money with our name on it," said board co-chairman Scott Baetz. "The legislative branch needs to say, 'Bring it in.'"

New Hampshire opted not establish its own marketplace, and is partnering with the federal government to regulate insurers and provide consumer assistance. But the process has been slowed by persistent disagreements over who has the final say over implementing the law.

The Legislature's fiscal committee delayed action last month on accepting $340,000 to start setting up a program to help consumers explore their options under the new law, and another $5 million in grant funding is in the Insurance Department's budget request. While the $5 million amount is more important, the smaller grant also would have been a significant help because it would've allowed the state to hire a coordinator to get started on outreach, Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny said.

Sevigny said his small staff has been working nights and weekends to develop a consumer assistance plan, but they can't do it alone.

"Trying to do an effective job on consumer assistance with existing resources is so far outside of our bandwidth that it's inconceivable," he said. "We've got to get relief. If the citizens of New Hampshire are going to be served the way we want them to be served, we've got to get relief."

Committee members said they worry that consumers will struggle next year when a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance kicks in. Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas agreed, saying it's a "no brainer" to accept the money given that the health overhaul is a law with which the state must comply.

"My fear is that we'll delay, we'll delay, we'll delay, and all of sudden the wave will be coming over us," he said. "And then it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it's going to be a disaster in terms of trying to implement this, because we simply aren't ready."

Board member Ray White, a former state senator and insurance broker, said he didn't object to sending the letter, but said he remains skeptical about the grant funding. Given the federal government's past record of not living up to its promises or changing rules on a whim. He said he worries accepting the money will commit the state to ongoing expenses once the initial grant money runs out.

"What happens if the rules get changed?" he said. "I'm the most conservative member of this board, I'm the guy who likes saying no, but it's not like I hate the poor, it's not like I don't want everyone to have insurance. I want all of those things, but I don't want to get committed to something that is scary."