ND Senate rejects bill meant to manage benefits in new insurance plan for public employees

The North Dakota Senate on Thursday rejected a House bill meant to ensure that thousands of public employees receive the same health benefits when their insurance coverage switches to another company this summer. The vote was 46-0.

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Sanford Health Plan, which is based in Fargo and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will provide coverage for the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System on July 1. Sanford's bid was lower than Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, which had provided coverage to the group for the past 37 years.

Lawmakers who proposed the bill said they have been hearing from public employees who are worried about losing some benefits with the new plan. The measure would have allowed bidding on the contract to be reopened if the new coverage didn't offer the same level of coverage as previous plans.

Democratic Sen. Tyler Axness, of Fargo, said the bill was introduced "out of fear of change" and believes it will scare away other potential bidders in the future.

"This is legislative micromanagement, plain and simple," Axness said. "We've always said we wanted competition and now we're afraid of competition."

Sanford will insure about 65,000 people, including public employees, retirees and their families. The six-year contract, which must be renewed every two years, is valued at about $1.8 billion. A Sanford spokeswoman has said the company is "committed to a goal of matching the existing provider network in North Dakota."

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The proposal was introduced late in the session after leadership from the Senate and the House agreed to accept it though its delayed bills process.