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A big month for Blue Cross

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Every Thursday and Friday in January will be Blue Cross and Blue Shield day at the state Department of Insurance. Those are the days staff members have set aside for meetings of the working group set up to review North Carolina Blue's application to go for-profit.

The group met Dec. 21 with consultants hired by the department (and paid for by Blue Cross) to review issues related to conversion--chief among them, how a change to for-profit status would affect Blue's premium rates and healthcare coverage for consumers. Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the DOI, says the working group aims to make a recommendation on Blue's application to Insurance Commissioner Jim Long by the end of January. From there, it could be a month--more or less--before Long gives the final yes or no. The Attorney General must sign off on the deal, as well.

Since public hearings on the conversion plan began in October, Pearson says the DOI has logged more than 1,000 comments on Blue's proposal. "You should see my file cabinet!" she groans. When Pearson last tallied the responses in early October, there were 500 comments, about 60 of which were in favor of conversion. That was followed by a surge in pro-conversion comments (many of them, it turns out, from Blue Cross employees or contractors), and then a wave of anti-conversion sentiment as the public comment period wound down on Dec. 2. (Among the latest to joint the anti ranks is a coalition of pharmacists and physicians that's hired powerhouse political consultants Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce to lobby against Blue's plan.)

So where do things stand now with public comments?

"This is not scientific at all," Pearson says, "But the 'Please don't let them convert' comments seem to have an edge."

Long's decision won't be based mainly on those numbers, though. The commissioner will be looking carefully at a confidential business plan Blue submitted as part of its application that contains premium rate projections and information about executive stock plans. Consultants have also been reviewing the record of Blue Cross conversions in other states and interviewing health care leaders, insurance agents and physicians about life under a for-profit Blue and the activities of charitable organizations created in the wake of conversions.

As The Independent reported previously (see "Blue Notes," Oct. 9, 2002), the record of Blue Cross conversions in other states is decidedly mixed. While premium rates haven't immediately gone through the roof, concerns have been raised about new for-profit companies dropping coverage for hard-to-insure groups. And in some states such as Virginia, when nonprofit Blue Cross organizations have been sold to for-profit insurers, the benefits have flowed mainly to company executives, not healthcare consumers.

In North Carolina, many conversion critics fear that selling the company is the driving force behind Blue's desire to go for-profit--else why do it (especially given that the company is profitable and leads in market share)? Robert Seligson, the state Medical Society's executive vice president, called the sale of Blue Cross to a big for-profit insurer "inevitable" if conversion is approved.

But officials at Blue Cross insist that's not the case.

"What we've said is that we're not for sale and we're not interested in that," says Blue Cross spokesman Mark Stinneford, when asked if there are any offers on the table (he says there are not). "We want to continue to be a North Carolina company."

To review public comments or other public documents on Blue's conversion plan, visit the DOI's Web site at www.ncdoi.com.

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