Alaska groups to look at health insurer's plan

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Three Alaska organizations and a disabled man are being allowed to participate in a hearing in Washington state on whether Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield will be allowed to convert to a for-profit company.

Premera, which does business in Washington and Alaska, is the largest health insurer in the 49th state. It provides coverage for more than 100,000 Alaskans, according to the state insurance division.

Since last spring, insurance divisions in Washington and Alaska have been studying Premera's proposal to switch from nonprofit to for-profit status so it can raise capital by selling stock. Foundations in each state would initially get all of the stock in the new company.

Regulators from both states must approve the transaction. Alaska, like Washington, has hired consultants at Premera's expense to analyze the proposal, said Stan Ridgeway, deputy director of the insurance division. Two hearings were held in Alaska late last year, and Washington also had public forums.

Mike Kreidler, director of Washington's Office of the Insurance Commissioner, has approved requests by more than two dozen groups and individuals to intervene in a hearing about the conversion. He agreed to allow the three Alaska organizations and one Alaska individual to be involved.

''The interveners will bring a certain expertise relevant to their positions as providers and consumers of health care,'' Kreidler said.

During the hearing, an attorney representing the University of Alaska, United Way of Anchorage, the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center and John Garner, a disabled Alaskan, will be allowed to present evidence, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and conduct discovery.

Representatives from the United Way and Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center said they weren't necessarily against the change.

''We didn't petition to intervene because we're opposed to this,'' said Joan Fisher, executive director for the health center. ''We petitioned to intervene because we wanted to be at the table and get information.''

While there has been no active opposition to the change in Alaska, two statewide hospital groups in Washington filed a lawsuit last month to stop it.

Premera's plan is illegal and would harm the health insurer's subscribers, the Washington State Hospital Association and Association of Washington Public Hospital Districts argued in their lawsuit in King County Superior Court.

Scott Forslund, Premera communications director, said Kreidler focused on avoiding redundancy and unnecessary delay when he approved the interveners for the hearing and organized them into five groups, one of them the Alaska group.

The insurance divisions in Washington and Alaska are still considering the conversion and awaiting expert testimony.

Bob Lohr was Alaska's insurance director studying the issue, but he was replaced after Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration assumed control of state offices.

The new director, Linda Hall, is expected to take over in the next few days. Hall, of Anchorage, was operations manager for National Bank of Alaska insurance services, a Wells Fargo company.

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