Expanded opportunities for small businesses to offer health insurance to their employees could soon be a reality, according to bills filed in the N.C. General Assembly.

The first bill, Senate Bill 86, would pave a road for multiple employer welfare agreements. A multiple employer welfare agreement could be established by a group of businesses in the same trade, line of business or profession, or in the same region or metropolitan area.

SB86 could mean that organizations, such as chambers of commerce, would have the chance to offer a health insurance plan if at least 500 people sign up.

David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, has been keeping on eye on SB86.

“We at both the local chambers and state chamber are monitoring this bill,” Jackson said on April 4. “We are all for businesses to take care of health care benefits as long as the plans themselves are strong enough to benefit their employees.”

Jackson said the eyes of the local and state chambers will focus on potential plans created from SB86, if passed, and what would be the best course of action to best benefit from the legislation.

“In theory, it would be great as long as it’s a product that people could use and is affordable,” Jackson said. “It might be best leveraged from the state (chamber of commerce) association, or could be scalable that the Boone, Blowing Rock and Avery chambers could offer it.”

“It’s about the number at this point and time,” Jackson said.

Jackson explained that other states have been interested in passing similar legislation as well.

Jackson says in order for association coverage to work, plans would have to include local points of contact and good access to local providers.

“We could have a plan that is broad enough (for the region), but also have the ability for someone to walk into Blue Cross on Howard Street and talk to someone,” Jackson said.

SB86 passed the N.C. Senate on March 13, with Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock) in favor, but the bill has been sitting in an N.C. House committee since March 19.

Meanwhile, a competing bill, House Bill 464, was going through committees as of April 11 with bipartisan support, including from Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone).

The bill offers “association health plans” and differs in certain areas from SB86, including that a qualifying business entity would have to be open for five years, instead of the minimum of two that SB86 requires.

Another difference of HB646 is that is requires that a potential association healthplan insurer would “have at least one substantial business purpose unrelated to the offering and providing of health insurance or other employee benefits to its employer members and their employees.”

According to media reports, the likely result of both bills is a compromise that would have to go back through both chambers.

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