TRENTON — A bill allowing Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield to revamp its corporate structure without making a charitable settlement to reflect its $7 billion value is on track for approval in the state Assembly in around two weeks.

Critics of the idea worried it would be fast-tracked. The proposal got a first hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee, where Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said additional hearings are planned for Dec. 10 and 14 in advance of a possible Assembly vote Dec. 17.

“The bottom line to it is to create healthier lives for their policyholders and to keep premiums at a reasonable level,” McKeon said.

Kevin Conlin, executive chairman of Horizon’s board, said the company’s corporate structure imposes restrictive rules under state law that prevent it from certain investments, especially in healthcare technology, it says it needs to make to compete.

“Even with this change, we will remain a not-for-profit charitable and benevolent company. Our mission and our unique commitment to members and New Jersey will not change,” Conlin said. “This newly proposed legal form means creating a better Horizon.”

Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Somerset, said he doesn’t buy that the company lacks the money it needs for the programs it seeks. One oft-repeated example during the four-hour hearing was providing Apple Watches to people as part of a plan to track activity and health vitals.

“There’s one thing we know is Horizon has plenty of money,” Danielsen said. “We can reduce the bloated salaries at your top. We learned a couple of years ago your first $20 million are divvied up to the first four guys.”

Ideas for converting Horizon seems to come up in the Legislature every couple of years. This latest incarnation is a reorganization into a not-for-profit mutual, the structure used in 18 other states. The company as part of the change would make a $600 million payment to the state by 2022 and $650 million more in payments over the 17 years that follow.

The company says it has worked with state leaders to address the objections raised when the idea was last broached in 2019, but consumer groups remains concerned.

“It is not the state’s money any more than it is Horizon’s money to take. It is money for and on behalf of the people of New Jersey,” said Maura Collinsgru, health care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action.

Renee Steinhagen, executive director of the NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, said the groups “are not necessarily against Horizon undertaking this reorganization” but want to protect the charitable assets.

“You can call this a nonprofit. You can call it a charity. But that’s what’s so disturbing about this legislation to me. It’s like calling a duck a goose when it’s a duck,” Steinhagen said.

“I say once there are private investors involved, a charitable trust payment has to be made,” she said. “You can call this entity a nonprofit, but it’s not.”

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Anthony Coscia, outside counsel to Horizon, said the change isn’t a conversion and the value isn’t escaping the mutual holding company, so a charitable settlement isn’t necessary.

Coscia said the bill has safeguards to ensure concerns about a sale to a for-profit company don’t materialize and that there are ways for the Legislature or administration to jump in, if needed.

“Now, if you don’t believe in DOBI, you don’t believe in the attorney general and you don’t believe that the New Jersey Legislature is going to do something about it if anybody went sideways on any of that, then yeah, I guess it’s a concern,” Coscia said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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