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Blue Cross Blue Shield to brief state's employers on Affordable Care Act

FARGO -- Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota is holding eight forums in the next two weeks to prepare the state's employers for changes in health care and its costs as the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented.

The forums start Monday in Minot and end June 27 in Fargo, BCBS announced Friday. They are not open to the general public.

BCBS President and CEO Paul von Ebers said the ACA is "probably the biggest change in health care since the Medicare law was initiated in 1966. It's complicated. There's a lot of things for employers to understand."

Now is the time for employers to get up to speed on how the federal health exchanges -- which will be implemented this fall -- work, said Mike Potts, director of employer group services for BCBS.

Potts said employers also will be briefed on the law's insurance mandates, and penalties for failing to meet them, as well as the tax implications of the law.

Employers also will be told of changes coming for insurance plans and benefit packages, Potts said.

"We want to help them walk through an assessment of their own readiness for 2014 so that they can be as prepared as they possibly can for the upcoming changes," Potts said.

Von Ebers said there's confusion among employers about how the law will affect their insurance coverage and bottom lines.

He said the law runs about 2,000 pages with 7,000 to 8,000 pages of accompanying regulations.

"It is a very dense, complicated topic," he said.

Von Ebers warned that changes in insurance costs will vary by the employer.

Businesses with younger employees may pay more; firms with older employees may pay less, because age no longer can be taken into account for rates. He added that a tax on health insurance will be passed on to customers.

The morning sessions of the BCBS forums (9 a.m. to noon each day) will be for employers with fewer than 50 employees. From 1 to 4 p.m., they will address the needs of employers with 50 or more employees.

The sessions are:

- Monday at Minot's International Inn.

- Tuesday at Williston's Grand Williston Hotel.

- Wednesday at Dickinson's Ramada Grand Dakota.

- Thursday at Bismarck's Best Western Ramkota.

- June 24 at Devils Lake's Lake Region State College.

- June 25 at Grand Forks' Howard Johnson.

- June 26 at Jamestown's Quality Inn and Suites.

- June 27 at Fargo's Holiday Inn.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010 and upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2012.

Some provisions of the law already are in effect:

- Dependents can stay on their parents' plans until age 26.

- Lifetime limits on the dollar value of health care coverage no longer are allowed.

- Children can't be denied coverage for pre-existing medical conditions.

North Dakota opted not to create its own health insurance marketplace or exchange, so that function will be run by the federal government.

Open enrollment begins Oct. 1, with health insurance marketplace coverage beginning Jan. 1.

Also as of Jan. 1, BCBS says:

- Most Americans will be required to have health insurance or pay a penalty.

- Firms with 50 or more employees will be required to provide qualifying coverage to full-time employees or help pay for insurance costs for employees in an insurance marketplace.

- Annual limits on health insurance coverage no longer will be allowed.