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PIANH 2008 legislative wrap-up

By Matthew Guilbault, Esq.

After working late to ensure the state budget remains on solid footing, the New Hampshire House and Senate adjourned for 2008 with several major pieces of legislation brought to a successful close.

According to Senate President Sylvia Larsen: “We've made progress on important issues like kindergarten aid, workforce housing, investing in our infrastructure and stabilizing our state retirement fund.” In the special session, the House and Senate agreed to a package of legislation that has been characterized by sponsors as helping “protect the state budget from decreasing revenues in 2008 and sets the stage for a balanced budget at the end of the biennium in 2009.” The package requires the Pease Development Authority to repay the approximately $10.5 million it owes the state; allows the bonding of school building aid in 2008, if necessary to ensure a balanced budget; and allows the bonding of up to $40 million of school-building aid in 2009. It also allows the New Hampshire community college system to move forward with the sale of its Stratham campus and its relocation to the Pease International Tradeport. Additionally, S.B. 321 reduces budgets for the judicial and legislative branches. If certain revenue targets are not met, it allows for an increase in the tobacco tax, and it allows the state Liquor Commission to optimize profits by adjusting the discount large retailers receive on wine purchases.

The session ended with the final vote on several other pieces of legislation, sending them on to the governor, including:

Online-child safety. S.B. 495, the Online Child Safety Act, is designed to modernize and strengthen the state's laws covering Internet solicitation of children, child pornography and indecent exposure via new technologies such as Web cams.

Kindergarten aid. S.B. 530 would help the 12 remaining communities that must implement public kindergartens. The bill calls for full-state funding of portable classrooms, fixtures and furniture for kindergarten as well as aid for temporary construction. It also permits districts to sign short-term contracts with private kindergartens that meet state standards.

Retirement. H.B. 1645 would overhaul the New Hampshire Retirement System and would protect retirees and provide for a new investment committee made up of experts who can begin to improve the performance of the retirement-system investments.

Transportation. The 10-year transportation plan, H.B. 1646, would address the state's infrastructure needs and set goals for transportation improvements during the next 10 years. Among other things, it provides for the repair of Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth; the widening of Interstate 93; completion of the southern leg of the Conway bypass; completion of the Granite Street exit in Manchester; and repairs to 89 red-listed bridges throughout the state.

Workforce housing. H.B. 1442 which would incorporate provisions originally contained in S.B. 199 to help nonprofit agencies and developers that provide subsidized housing.

Workers' compensation. On the insurance side of issues, the New Hampshire Legislature responded to a call by a PIANH-initiated coalition, to address the inequities created by H.B. 471, which had changed a provision in the Workers' Compensation Law and amended the limited exclusion found in the law for corporations and limited liability companies. Under H.B. 471, the election to exclude these individuals would not apply to any individual, regardless of status or title, who is engaged actively in on-site work on any construction site within the state of New Hampshire. PIANH, and the coalition, took issue with the legislation before it took effect in September and urged lawmakers to modify the law. As a result, the governor signed H.B. 692 in January, which eliminated the troublesome language included in the original law.

Insurance for small business. Small businesses in New Hampshire were the beneficiaries of a new law, called the HealthFirst initiative, signed by Gov. John Lynch. The law will require major insurance carriers to offer a standard-wellness plan for businesses with up to 50 employees. Premium costs will be controlled by focusing on prevention; managing chronic conditions; and promoting best practices. The New Hampshire Insurance Department (NHID) also will create a committee whose members include small-business owners to design the wellness plan with a target premium of 10 percent of the prior year's median wage, currently about $262 a month. That compares with $325 per month—the current average cost for an HMO plan for a small business.

Insurance Department records, investigations. This session the governor signed a proposal into law, H.B. 1245, to clarify the documents and records required to be produced and the use of such documents and records during an insurance investigation. The law, effective July 20, 2008, was a request of the Insurance Department. According to the law's provisions, any individual or entity that transacts insurance in this state or is otherwise subject to the authority of the commissioner shall, upon request of the commissioner, provide all documents and information relevant to any investigation under this section. Moreover, any of these documents shall be confidential by law and privileged, and not subject to subpoena, discovery or admissible as evidence in any private civil action. However, the commissioner may use the documents in furtherance of any regulatory or legal action brought as part of the commissioner's duties and may share the documents with other state, federal and international regulatory and international law enforcement authorities; provided, that the recipient agrees to maintain the confidentiality and privileged status of the information.

Policy audits. H.B. 1244 was considered to clarify when audits are conducted on policies issued on an auditable basis. The bill, requested by the New Hampshire Insurance Department, passed both the House and Senate and now is in the enrolling process before it heads to the governor for his signature. It states that audits will be completed no more than 120 days after the expiration or cancellation of the policy, provided that there is no bona fide dispute. Further, in cases where there is a dispute, the insurer will be required to notify the insured in writing that there is a bona fide dispute and this notice shall toll the 120-day time period until the dispute is resolved. Upon resolution, the insurer will need to complete the audit within the time remaining in the time period. 8/08

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