February 12, 2020

House approves state health insurance exchange changes

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The House voted 44-23, along party lines, to move a bill giving the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange more autonomy in helping impoverished and uninsured residents gain access to health insurance.

The bill, House Bill 100, now moves to the Senate for consideration. 

On the surface, the bill, sponsored by state Reps. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, and Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, might appear as just another administrative action in the sometimes complex world of health insurance. But Cadena and others say it is a necessary move to ensure New Mexico’s exchange survives as the Trump administration chips away at many provisions of the Affordable Care Act. 

Cadena, who argued for the bill’s passage on the House floor against several attempts to amend it by Republican lawmakers, said after its passage that it will “decouple” the state’s nonprofit Health Insurance Exchange from the federal system.

“This will allow New Mexico to administer our own exchange,” she said. 

Jeffery Bustamante, chief executive officer of the exchange, also known as beWellnm, said the bill will help “protect New Mexico in the event the Trump administration does something drastic in terms of the [federal] exchange.”

The New Mexico Insurance Exchange board helps New Mexicans navigate the world of health insurance and connect them with a plan that meets their needs and financial status. Bustamante said the entity works with agents, brokers and insurance enrollment carriers to help New Mexicans determine what is the best and most affordable plan for them. 

Cadena told the House floor members that more than 180,000 New Mexicans are going without health insurance.

A recent Urban Institute study put that figure as 187,000 for New Mexicans under the age of 65. 

Among other measures, provisions of the bill say the exchange can help develop plans that can be designed to limit hikes in health care plan premiums and reduce deductibles participants pay.

Some Republican lawmakers questioned whether the bill would give the exchange too much power, leaving it to operate without auditing oversight or perhaps lead to a conflict of interest if the exchange itself began offering health insurance plans. Those are issues Cadena said were not part of the bill. 

Bustamante said if the bill becomes law it would go into effect at the start of 2022. That gives the exchange time to look into ways to reach more New Mexicans who need health insurance plans and find the right one for them. He added the move, if it becomes law, likely will cost the exchange another $250,000 to $400,000 in operational budget costs.