D.C. Council backs small-business health exchange mandate

The D.C. Council has voted to put the District on a path toward becoming one of the few places to require small-business owners to purchase employee health insurance through a government-run exchange.

The mandate has been controversial, generating strong opinions pro and con among business and activist groups, but the council voted unanimously Tuesday on a package of temporary exchange legislation, with little debate over the wisdom of the mandate.

The District’s health insurance exchange, part of a national network of state-based exchanges envisioned under the federal health-care overhaul, is set to open in October, offering policies that will go into effect Jan. 1.

Under the legislation passed Tuesday, the small-business mandate will not take effect until 2015. Representatives from the insurance industry had pressed the council to delay the mandate at least a year to gauge its effect on the market. But exchange officials and health-care advocates prevailed on council members to leave the 2015 mandate in place.

The legislation passed Tuesday will expire in October 2014, said Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), chairman of the health committee, because its provisions must take effect before Congress would be able to review it. By next spring, she said, the council will undertake the process of drafting a permanent bill — during which the mandate debate is likely to reemerge.

In passing the exchange bill, lawmakers rejected an amendment that would empower the District’s insurance commissioner to more closely scrutinize health insurers’ requests to raise their rates. The impact of the federal overhaul has led many insurers to indicate significant rate hikes will be coming in 2014, when most of its provisions take effect.

The amendment, introduced by David A. Catania (I-At Large), would allow the commissioner to reject an insurer’s rate filings if they are not “in the best interest of consumers and not excessive, inadequate or unfairly discriminatory,” among other reasons.

But the measure was defeated after several members expressed concerns about passing the requirement without a full hearing.

In another piece of stopgap legislation, lawmakers placed themselves at the center of a years-long debate over the regulation of food trucks and other vendors.

The council approved an emergency measure offered by Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) that approves noncontroversial portions of a rules package drafted by city regulatory agencies while empowering the council to modify other provisions that had been strongly opposed by food truck operators.

Orange said he expected the council to act within 30 days to address the contentious rules, which include a proposed 500-foot truck-free buffer around designated “mobile roadway vending” zones intended for clusters of food trucks, as well as a provision banning trucks from parking where there is less than 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalks.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration had urged the council to approve the regulations as written. His legislative director, Janene D. Jackson, said before the vote that they provided “excellent balance” between food truck advocates and operators of traditional restaurants, who have clashed for more than four years.

Other council members were less optimistic that the council could deal quickly with the rules but said they looked forward to a final resolution.

“This is one of the longest running movies at the council, and it’s not a very interesting movie, frankly,” said Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). “It really is time to get this put to bed as much as possible so we can watch some other movie.”

Lawmakers also voted to approve several city contracts, including payments of $1.8 million to Forrester Construction for work performed on the modernization of Nalle Elementary School in Marshall Heights.

Orange lodged strong objections to the payments, noting that Rockville-based Forrester recently reached a $1 million settlement with the city over allegations that it had taken fraudulent advantage of the city’s local, small and disadvantaged business preference program.

But other members overruled Orange’s objections, noting that the fraud allegations concerned other projects and that the bulk of the payments were due to small subcontractors, not Forrester itself.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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