- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A panel of legislative leaders resolved a dispute Monday that was holding up a more than $14 million appropriations bill for the state’s public employee retirement system, agreeing to add one lawmaker from each party to board that oversees the benefits.

The agreement, which six House and Senate leaders reached after more than three hours of talks, means the Legislature may reconvene on June 16 to consider the bill that sets aside money for the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System and state Retirement and Investment Office.

Some lawmakers had criticized the seven-member North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System board for a lack of transparency when it awarded a contract that will make Sanford Health Plan the insurance carrier for thousands of public employees - including lawmakers - on July 1.

Part of the compromise reached Monday also mandates that more details of the bid process be outlined.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, was adamant that lawmakers serve on the panel.

“The people funding it should have a seat at the table,” Carlson told reporters.

Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, the Senate majority leader, was less enthusiastic about having lawmakers serve on the panel but agreed to it. He said adding a lawmaker from each party “hopefully will take the politics out of it.”

The legislative session lasted 78 days, just short of the 80-day maximum set by the North Dakota Constitution.

Even then, the appropriations bill for the pension and benefit system was left unresolved after House budget writers inserted amendments aimed at ensuring public employees could keep the same health benefits and medical providers when their insurer changes.

Senate leaders said House amendments went too far, and could jeopardize the contract with Sanford Health and spur legal action.

Sanford Health Plan, which is based in Fargo and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will provide coverage for the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System starting July 1. The board of the public employees group voted in February to switch the group’s health coverage after Sanford underbid Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, which had provided the coverage for the 37 years.

Sanford will insure about 65,000 people, including public employees, retirees and their families. The six-year contract, which must be renewed every two years, is valued at about $1.8 billion.

Cindy Morrison, a Sanford Health executive vice president, told The Associated Press the insurer is committed to providing coverage that is at least as good as people have had with Blue Cross.

“Any change after 37 years, there is going to be some questions,” she said. “This has been a great opportunity to address them.”

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This story has been corrected to show Wardner is a Republican.

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