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Regulator's cheerleading chided as 'inappropriate': August event will promote health savings accounts

July 23, 2007

Not yet a believer in health savings accounts?

Not to worry.

The Indiana Department of Insurance is here to convert you.

The insurance regulatory arm of Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration is staging a symposium Aug. 3 to educate employers on the benefits of health savings accounts.

Employers are increasingly pairing the tax-favored accounts, stuffed with a couple thousand dollars for each employee, with high-deductible health insurance as a lower-cost alternative to health plans with co-pays. Most employers also pay for preventive care without charging the worker's account.

But promoting the concept is an unusual move for the department-even Commissioner Jim Atterholt admits that.

"This conference is just a way to use the bully pulpit, spread the gospel, if you will, and get the word out," he said.

But such zeal for health savings accounts has riled the agnostics on the issue, who doubt the accounts are the savior of the nation's health care woes. Employees have been slower than employers to embrace health savings accounts and some early studies have suggested the accounts force consumers to skimp on needed medical care.

"Presenting a rah-rah session-'Oh, gee, aren't health savings accounts great?'-it's just inappropriate for the department, who should be looking out for consumers," said Julia Vaughn, health policy coordinator for the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. She is also part of Hoosiers for a Common Sense Health Plan, which advocates an entirely government-paid system of health care.

Vaughn sees the symposium as a favor for health insurance companies, who have been aggressively pushing health savings accounts, or HSAs, since 2003 when Congress made them tax-free if the money in them is spent on medical care.

Two Indianapolis-based health insurers, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and UnitedHealthcare's Golden Rule Insurance Co., are sponsoring the symposium. Fort Wayne-based Tower Bank is also a sponsor.

The conference is free, and includes breakfast and lunch for up to 300 attendees. About 100 already have signed up.

The conference will champion freemarket solutions to the nation's health care problems. Its featured presenters include a representative from the health care advocacy group formed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and an HSA consultant and former adviser to President George W. Bush.

After seeing an invitation to the symposium, Vaughn drafted a letter to Atterholt, requesting a meeting to discuss the department's consumer advocacy responsibilities.

But Atterholt insists promoting health savings accounts and protecting consumers aren't mutually exclusive.

When consumers have "skin in the game," he said, their demands for better information and better value will force prices to come down and quality to go up.

"There's a misconception that it only benefits the young and the healthy," Atterholt said of health savings accounts. He added, "There's a belief-that we're not apologizing for-that the HSA is a huge part of the solution."

Nationally, 4.5 million consumers have a health savings account and high-deductible insurance to cover their health care, according to a survey by America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group.

That figure was up 43 percent from the previous year and 350 percent from two years ago. But it still represents just 2.3 percent of Americans who have private health benefits.

This isn't the first time Atterholt, who became insurance commissioner in February 2005, has irked consumer groups by using the department to promote the industry or its causes. Under his watch, the department revamped its Web site to promote Indiana as a good place for insurers to locate their offices.

But Atterholt says his agency has successfully balanced promotion of the industry with punishment of "bad actors."

Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, backs up Atterholt in this fight. The chairman of the House Insurance Committee said Atterholt has struck a good balance between industry promotion and consumer protection during his tenure.

Even though Fry calls health savings accounts "a fraud," he said Atterholt has the right to use the department to promote what he believes in.

"While I disagree with the public policy statement it makes, he's the commissioner; he can do whatever he wants to do," Fry said. "I'm a big fan of Jim Atterholt. As strong as he is pro-industry, he's also pro-consumer."
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