Controversial insurance bill returns, minus high-profile name

Legislation to make sure Georgia health insurance agents get a commission for all sales is back in play at the General Assembly, a year after media attention helped scuttle a similar bill.

State Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, the sponsor of last year's bill, has made significant changes, such as not having Rules Committee Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, as a co-sponsor.

It was the presence of Meadows, perhaps the second-most-powerful member of the House, as the second signer of the bill in 2016 that led The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to raise questions about whether the measure represented a conflict of interest. Meadows is an independent insurance agent who has long been licensed to sell health insurance.

While his name is no longer on the bill, his interest in it remains, lawmakers say.

And opponents of the measure say it still smacks of hypocrisy from a Republican Party that has long argued against government interference in businesses and for a free-market philosophy in legislating.

Blackmon said such criticism is unfair.

“We’re just not operating in a free market in the health care industry,” he said. “No industry is more heavily regulated in this day and time than health care.”

Besides not having Meadows’ name on the bill, Blackmon has nixed other provisions that caused him trouble a year ago, including a proposed minimum commission for agents.

House Bill 64 would require health insurance companies to pay agents a commission for every plan the agent sells or renews, but it does not specify an amount. Blackmon said because the Affordable Care Act requires all taxpayers to have health insurance, agents in small towns are handling more individual plans than before.

Insurance companies, he said, were not always paying commissions for those less profitable plans. The ACA mandated that insurance companies spend at least 80 percent of the money they take in from premiums on health care costs and improving quality. The other 20 percent can go to administrative, overhead and marketing costs, and agents’ commissions, when they’re paid at all, are being cut as companies seek to keep most of that 20 percent.

“This bill provides for agents of health care insurance to be compensated for services rendered on this mandate,” Blackmon said. “And while it does not establish minimums, HB 64 would prevent discrimination with respect to compensation.”

In other words, if an agent sells two individual plans to a couple, the insurance company would pay a commission, just like it would if he sold 20 plans to a small business.

“It is really designed to react to the Affordable Care Act,” Blackmon said. “We wouldn’t have to protect small businesses in Georgia if this mandate had not been handed down by the federal government.”

The House Insurance Committee approved the bill Wednesday, and it could be on the House floor for a vote next week.

But it was the Senate last year that balked. That chamber's Insurance and Labor Committee at first stalled the measure in 2016 before Senate leadership stepped in to appease Meadows and made sure the bill made it out of committee. But it never made it to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Republican lawmakers have long criticized government attempts to involve itself in the marketplace, particularly on wage issues. And the fact that the idea came from a powerful House leader who sells health insurance for a living raised questions.

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, the new chairman of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee and the founder of an insurance business, opposed Blackmon's bill last year, saying it would be hard to explain passing legislation guaranteeing a minimum commission for insurance agents when his panel wouldn't consider a bill raising the minimum wage for all Georgians.

“When it came through committee I voted against it because I wasn’t thrilled with us telling insurance companies that they are mandated to pay a set amount,” Jones said. “I do believe an insurance agent’s profession is a service and that people should be compensated for their work, but it’s also a voluntary service. You don’t have to be an insurance agent, just like you don’t have to be a lawyer or anything else.

“There is a new version coming through asking that they be compensated something. That is something I am willing to look at,” he added. “But I still have some reservations about it until I see the language.”

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said Blackmon's bill still goes against the free-market principles Republicans regularly espouse.

“You hear a constant refrain from Republicans: ‘Let the free market prevail, let business do its business without government interference. We have to reduce regulations, unencumber business to have at it.’

“This bill does exactly the opposite. Telling a business, telling a sector of our economy, what to do. How does that square with what we hear the Republicans saying?”

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