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Insurance companies licensed in Georgia will soon be able to sell health policies offered in other states that provide less coverage than Georgia currently requires.
The new law is one of dozens set to take effect in Georgia on July 1, the start of the state's fiscal year.
Among the others set to kick in on Thursday is a law that paves the way for communities to permit the Sunday sales of alcohol and another that allows billboard owners to clear cut many trees blocking their signs. A law cracking down on illegal immigration also had been set to take effect, but a federal judge on Monday blocked major portions of it.
Delta Air Lines, Gulfstream and developers spending $1 million or more to bring tourist attractions to the state will also be eligible for hefty tax breaks, under bills Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law.
The insurance law authorizes the sale of insurance policies across state lines for Georgia residents. Experts say it's among the first law of its kind in the nation.
Critics complain that it opens the door for watered down policies that don't cover services like diabetes care, mammograms or regular checkups for young children that are required under Georgia policies. But supporters say it could drive down prices by introducing more competition and allow the roughly 20 percent of Georgians who are uninsured to find a policy they can afford.
Although the law takes effect Thursday it could still be some time before any out-of-state policies are available to Georgia residents.
The state insurance commissioner's office must write and adopt regulations governing the policies and that process could take several months.
Even then, it's unclear how broad the impact will be.
The law covers only individual policies, not the larger group policies purchased by companies providing health coverage to their employees. Such individual policies comprise only about 4 percent of the health insurance market in Georgia, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. How many insurers operating in Georgia will offer up plans from other states is also an open question.
Graham Thompson, executive director of the Georgia Association of Health Insurance Plans, said the group is intrigued by the new law. But he said his members -- the seven largest insurers in the state -- will need to see how the regulations take shape before they decide whether to jump in.
"We remained neutral on the bill because it's so new," Thompson said. "But we are all for ways to offer affordable products to our customers ... the goal is great."
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Matt Ramsey, said he worked to build in consumer protections.
The out-of-state plans must carry a benefits chart outlining exactly what Georgians are getting for their money and they must still be approved by Georgia's insurance commissioner. Those who purchase the plans would still have access to the state's dispute resolution process and the Georgia courts, Ramsey said.
Ramsey said he hopes the bill will chip away at a critical market, the uninsured who don't have coverage through work and who are looking for an individual policy that fits their budget.
"We want to have a wide range of product options out there," the Peachtree City Republican said. "So, if your family can only afford a Ford than we want to be able to get a Ford."
"Let the free market work," Ramsey said.
But Cynthia Zeldin, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, a consumer health group, said the law will create "a race to the bottom" with Georgians buying stripped-down policies without really understanding how little they actually cover.
Andy Lord, a lobbyist at the state Capitol for the American Diabetes Association, said there is no evidence to support the idea that the law would drive down costs. He said the real intent seems to be to chip away at Georgia health insurance mandates
"This says that whatever the lowest level of coverage is in any other state is good enough for Georgia," Lord said.
Lawmakers in Georgia tried for several years to adopt the health insurance bill. They succeeded this year as both the House and Senate picked up Republican seats. Passage of the bill followed a bitter debate, with Democrats arguing the bill would undermine the state's relatively tough insurance mandates, adopted over the years by the state Legislature.
Richard Cauchi, health program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said two other states -- Wyoming and Rhode Island -- have passed similar laws. But Rhode Island's law, enacted in 2008, is regional in scope, looking to partner with other New England states to expand its own health insurance offerings, he said. Wyoming's law was enacted in 2010.
Cauchi said the Georgia law is the first to be signed since President Barack Obama signed the federal health care reform bill into law.
Eighteen states have considered such laws, Cauchi said.
"It seems to be a popular topic lately," he added.
House Bill 47: http://www.legis.ga.gov