Bill Would Apply Antitrust Laws To Insurance With Congress still stalled on the big health bill, it turns to smaller pieces of legislation. The House this week will vote on a bill to repeal a decades-old insurance industry exemption from antitrust laws. Some analysts say eliminating the exemption wouldn't have an impact on competition or premiums.
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Bill Would Apply Antitrust Laws To Insurance

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Bill Would Apply Antitrust Laws To Insurance

Bill Would Apply Antitrust Laws To Insurance

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As recently as last month, health care was job number one for Congress. Now, we're told, jobs are job number one, but the health-care overhaul is not quite dead. On Sunday, President Obama announced that he is inviting lawmakers from both parties to a bipartisan health-care conference at the White House. It'll happen on February 25th. The president and his allies are still struggling to figure out how to resurrect their health plan. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: To listen to President Obama, all Congress needs to get its health bill back on track is a little push. Here he was last Monday, in a town hall meeting broadcast on YouTube.

President BARACK OBAMA: It is my greatest hope that we can get this done - not just a year from now, but soon.

ROVNER: On Tuesday in New Hampshire, the president talked about the people who'd be hurt if Congress doesn't act soon.

Pres. OBAMA: I will not walk away from these people and Congress shouldn't, either. We should keep working to get it done. Democrats and Republicans together, let's get it done this year.

ROVNER: And on Wednesday, he took the message right to the source: a meeting of Senate Democrats themselves.

Pres. OBAMA: We've got to finish the job on health care.

ROVNER: But several private meetings last week with House and Senate leaders failed to break the impasse over how to proceed with the health effort now that the Senate has lost its 60-seat majority and with it, the ability to thwart Republican filibusters on the bill. About the most clarity reporters could get was this, from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): I anticipate making a decision just as soon as the way forward is clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Last week, you did say it would be this week. Last week, you said by the end of this week, you would make that decision.

Rep. HOYER: Did I say that?

Unidentified Man: Yes, sir.

Rep. HOYER: I was in error.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: But while leaders try to figure out how to move forward on their large-scale bill, the House has made one decision. This week, it will vote on one small piece of the overhaul effort that's very popular with House Democrats. The bill would repeal a decades-old exemption from antitrust laws enjoyed by the insurance industry. Democrats say that would increase competition and lower premiums. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the decision at her weekly meeting with reporters last Thursday.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): For 65 years, the insurance industry has had a unique - well, they and Major League Baseball - but the insurance industry has had an exemption from antitrust legislation in terms of price fixing and collusion, and you name it.

ROVNER: David Balto, a former official at the Federal Trade Commission, says repealing the insurance industry's antitrust exemption is a good place to begin a health system overhaul.

Mr. DAVID BALTO (Former Official, Federal Trade Commission): The House is taking absolutely the right first step by eliminating the McCarran-Ferguson exemption, and allowing the lodestar of competition to provide guidance in health insurance markets.

ROVNER: McCarran-Ferguson is the name of the 1940s law that provided the exemption in the first place. But there's far from universal agreement that repealing the anti-trust exemption will have the effect its backers are hoping for. In fact, says Kevin Bingham of the American Academy of Actuaries:

Mr. KEVIN BINGHAM (American Academy of Actuaries): Quite honestly, it would lead to what I believe, and the academy believes, would be reduced competition and potentially higher rates.

ROVNER: That's because what the exemption was meant for in the first place was to allow insurance companies to share data about insurance risk. That's important, says Bingham, because without that data, insurance companies could end up setting premiums too low. Then, the insurance companies could become insolvent and unable to pay claims.

Large insurers - the ones Democrats say are taking over the health insurance markets - probably wouldn't even be affected by the repeal, says Bingham, because they have enough of their own data.

But the effect could actually be negative on smaller or start-up companies.

Mr. BINGHAM: Without that ability to look at that industry data and kind of come up with cost estimates, it may kind of push them away from getting involved at all.

ROVNER: And if small companies stay on the sidelines, competition could actually be reduced. And it's not just the actuaries who say that. The Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office both say repealing the anti-trust exemption would have little or no effect on health insurance premiums. The House vote is expected later this week. The Senate, however, has no plans to follow suit.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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