CareFirst bill called a no-sale option

Hurson says his proposed task force is contingency

No message intended, he says

February 08, 2003|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

The chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee said yesterday that his bill to create a task force on CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield's mission was a contingency measure in case the insurer's deal to be sold is rejected.

The bill would set up a study group for "development of a plan that rearticulates the mission of CareFirst of Maryland as a nonprofit health service plan that is required to meet specified goals."

Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he introduced the bill, just ahead of this week's deadline for filing new legislation, in case Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen turns down CareFirst's request to convert to for-profit operation and be sold to WellPoint Health Networks Inc. for $1.37 billion. Larsen's ruling is expected Feb. 20.

Hurson said he wasn't assuming Larsen will reject the deal and wasn't trying to send a message to Larsen or to CareFirst, but simply wanted to get a bill introduced before the deadline. If Larsen rejects the deal, he said, the legislature is unlikely to reverse the commissioner.

"If it's not allowed, we'd need a reform of CareFirst. I'm not sure in my own mind what kind," he said.

Legislators and others have criticized CareFirst for abandoning its mission of providing broad coverage, dropping out of programs for the poor and elderly, which the insurer said were losing money. At a briefing before Hurson's committee Thursday, opponents of the deal presented broad concepts for changes to CareFirst, such as modifying its board's composition and spelling out what kinds of public contributions were expected from a nonprofit health plan.

One of those who testified, W. Minor Carter, a Maryland Cares lobbyist, said yesterday that keys to any CareFirst reform would include governance and oversight of compensation for the board and executives.

Jeffery W. Valentine, a CareFirst spokesman, said the company would have no comment yesterday on Hurson's bill.

The CareFirst study bill was part of a stack of pre-deadline filings by Hurson. While he is listed as the only sponsor on each, he said, the package represented a consensus of the health committee's leadership.

Although the other bills don't deal directly with the CareFirst conversion issue, Hurson said he thought the potential for conversion made it important to consider additional protections for consumers and health care providers, including broadening Medicaid eligibility for adults, imposing new regulations on the individual insurance market and regulating payments for physician care given in hospitals.

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