It was business as usual for members of the North Carolina General Assembly again this week. The Senate wrapped things up early in the week, while the House carried on with session and committee meetings through Thursday. As everyone prepares for another week of this summer's long session, members are getting ready to come together for a joint session early next week. Members of the House and the Senate will meet to discuss SJR 687: SBOE Confirmation/Jt. Session, the recommended appointments to the State Board of Education made by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.

The House and the Senate will reconvene on Monday, August 12 at 7:00PM.

Small Business Insurance

A bill that would provide another healthcare option for statewide association members cleared the House on Wednesday with substantial bipartisan support. The intended goal of SB 86: Small Business Health Care Act is to make it easier and more affordable for small business owners and independent contractors to come together with other industry members to purchase health plans to provide insurance coverage for employees. The plans offered by association members would be required to provide coverage for hospital and physician services, along with any other state and federal provisions regarding what and whom the plans cover. The association health plans would also have to meet the federal group health plan requirements just as larger employers do. For an association to be eligible to participate in the new health plans, the association must be in existence for at least one year, have at least 500 individuals eligible for coverage, among other solvency requirements.

Association health plans must cover pre-existing conditions, but exactly what else the plans would cover will vary from plan to plan, raising concerns for some who oppose the bill. During the floor debate, a number of Democrats urged the House to support an amendment to require the AHPs to include the ten essential health benefits that must be covered under the Affordable Care Act. Members ultimately voted to table the amendment.

Supporters of the association health plans view the plans as another tool in the toolbox for small businesses and independent contractors to gain access to affordable, quality health insurance. The bill now heads back to the Senate for concurrence before making its way over to the Governor.

Healthcare Bills

In an effort to get things moving that have been stuck in committee, the House discussed a bill combining several others already heard by members this session. SB 361: Healthy NC allows the state to join the Psychology Interjurisdictional Licensure Compact (PSYPACT). This would make North Carolina the eighth state to join the Compact, the number needed for the Compact to go into effect. PSYPACT allows psychologists to provide telepsychology services in other states that are also participating in the Compact without having to obtain a license for that individual state. Telehealth services would be eligible for Medicaid and private insurance coverage as well. The bill will also allow marriage and family therapists to conduct first-level exams for involuntary commitments, creates the lupus advisory committee, makes changes to adult home care inspections to eliminate redundancy, and puts step therapy protocols in place for private insurance companies and the State Health Plan. SB 361 would establish the North Carolina Healthcare Solutions Task Force, a ten-year study group to evaluate and develop provisions that could help provide greater access to healthcare throughout the state.

Additionally, SB 361 would require oral chemotherapy treatment drugs to be covered at the same rate that IV chemotherapy treatment currently is. This provision raised concerns among some members that the oral chemotherapy treatment coverage would drive costs up too much. Ultimately, members on both sides of the aisle showed support for the bill during both the House Health and Rules committee this week and overwhelmingly on the floor, passing the bill on its second reading in a 114-3 vote.

Fireworks Sales

A bill to allow for the sale of consumer fireworks in North Carolina was up for debate amongst members of the House Committee on Regulatory Reform this week. HB 615: NC Consumer Fireworks Safety Act would allow for the use, sale, and possession of consumer fireworks, so long as the county or municipality has passed an ordinance to allow for the permitting process to take place. Residents would have to be at least 18 years old to purchase the fireworks and their use would come with some restrictions, such as the time of day they are being set off and the proximity to certain locations like schools and churches. In order to sell the fireworks, a permit would have to be authorized by the Department of Insurance and the retailer would have to prove they have the proper infrastructure at their sales location to sell the product. HB 615 would levy a five percent excise tax on the sale, 25% of which would go to The Firefighters' Education Fund.

Supporters of legalizing consumer fireworks in North Carolina, including primary bill sponsor Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland), believe that the use of consumer-level fireworks should be regulated in the interest of public safety. He explained to the committee that North Carolinians are buying fireworks from neighboring states and setting them off illegally, with little to no legal ramifications. The bill was displaced from committee following a lengthy discussion among members of the public and those on the committee who are concerned about expanding the sale of fireworks to consumer-level fireworks. Rep. Szoka told the committee that he plans to address members' concerns and make some tweaks to the bill to ensure public safety before bringing another version back before the committee.