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Sanford Health gets OK to sell insurance in North Dakota

FARGO -- North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm announced Wednesday that he has given Sanford, which is affiliated with Fargo MeritCare, approval to sell health insurance plans in North Dakota.

"I think this is very good news for the people of North Dakota," Hamm said. "Competition and choice helps ensure that there are high-quality products for North Dakotans and that they can get them at an affordable price."

Sanford still must seek approval to sell policies at approved rates, Hamm noted, a review he expects will be done in one or two months.

Ryan Bohe, chief administrative officer for Sanford Health Plan, said a "handful" of employees will be based in Fargo to handle customer service and provider relations.

One way Sanford strives to distinguish itself in the market is by focusing on wellness and preventive health for its customers, Bohe said.

In South Dakota, Sanford has 20 percent to 25 percent of the overall group health insurance market, behind Wellmark, the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, despite the recent loss of MeritCare and Altru customers, remains by far the dominant private health insurer in the state.

As measured by premiums sold, the Blues commanded almost 90 percent of the private health insurance market last year, according to the most recent figures available from Hamm's office.

Last year, Blue Cross Blue Shield's enrollment in North Dakota was 480,780 and had dropped to 455,463 as of January, a decline of more than 5 percent, because of the loss of MeritCare, and Altru, which switched to Medica.

Still, the entry of the Sanford Health Plan, which ranks as the second provider of health insurance in South Dakota, where it started in 1998, marks a milestone in North Dakota, Hamm said.

Last year, Medica began offering individual coverage in North Dakota. Before then, it focused solely on employer groups in the state.

Because Sanford's health plans are not yet approved for sale, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota spokeswoman said she could not offer specific comments about products and pricing.

"However, as we have always done, we will continue to look at ways to offer the most competitive price for comparative products," said Denise Kolpack, the Blues' vice president for communications.

Sanford, which covers 13 counties in southwestern Minnesota, also is seeking to expand its coverage to include the western half of Minnesota.