DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate approved a health benefit plan Wednesday that primarily will be available to healthy farm families struggling to find affordable individual coverage — an approach backers called a “test model” but critics worried might create a false hope that is not true insurance.

“This is just a lifesaver,” said Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, during a floor debate over Senate File 2329, which passed 40-9.

“This solves a big problem that we have here in Iowa,” with thousands of Iowans facing skyrocketing individual health premiums that don’t qualify for Affordable Care Act subsidies.

Under the proposal, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield — the state’s largest health insurer — would create health benefit plans for Iowa Farm Bureau members.

The benefit plans — they cannot be called insurance because they would not be regulated — would be designed to be affordable for lower-income farmers.

The legislation makes this possible by stating the plans would not be subject to state or federal insurance regulations.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, the bill’s floor manager, said the health benefit approach is a pilot project designed to address issues created by the Affordable Care Act’s “dumpster fire.”

If it proves successful as a “test model,” the concept likely would be made available to more Iowans, he said.

The option, he said, would be available to protect against catastrophic circumstances for 20,000 Iowans who have left the health insurance marketplace.

However, critics warned that Iowans might sign up for the benefits only to find out the plan will not cover many of the major health problems addressed by conventional insurance.

“It’s going to sound good until something happens to them,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo.

“This is a buyer-beware policy, and people ought to be aware of that,” added Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “I think we’re going to throw a soggy life jacket for people who need our help.”

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said the health benefit concept would undermine the premise of insurance by cherry-picking the healthiest Iowans and “promising to be everything to everyone until they read the fine print” and likely would end up in the court system.

“This just doesn’t pass the smell test for me,” he said.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said, in supporting the legislature, that he had confidence that Iowans would be able to figure out if the concept works for them.

“This might be the most important vote that we take this year,“ Zaun said. “It’s a huge, huge step to fix what already is broken right now.”

Other action

In other action Wednesday, senators also approved Senate Joint Resolution 2006, which would ask Iowa voters to amend the state constitution to solidify the lieutenant governor's place in the line of succession. The resolution, passed by the Senate on a 45-4 vote, would have to pass both the House and the Senate in the same form and then be approved again by the next Iowa General Assembly to come before voters in 2020.

The legislation seeks to resolve a murky area of law and a constitutional dispute that arose last May after then-Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to become the ambassador to China and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds succeeded him as Iowa's 43rd governor.

Reynolds picked public defender Adam Gregg to take her place as lieutenant governor. But Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller gave a formal legal opinion that put a cloud over his status. Miller said research by his office found that an individual ascending midterm from lieutenant governor to governor does not have the constitutional authority to appoint a replacement.

Reynolds, Branstad and others disputed Miller's position. But rather than risk a legal challenge, Reynolds appointed Gregg as her "acting" lieutenant governor — a hybrid that makes him a "full partner" in her administration but leaves him out of the line of constitutional succession to replace her if need be.

The resolution would have to pass both the House and the Senate in the same form and then be approved again by the next Iowa General Assembly to come before voters in 2020.

Also, senators voted 49-0 to approve a new audit and financial appraisal of the state-owned Iowa Communications Network, which provides telephone services, two-way, audio-video conferencing, data and Internet services to schools, government agencies, libraries and the Iowa National Guard.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, floor manager of Senate File 2355, said the state likely can’t sell or lease the network outright due to the federally funded inclusion of National Guard and military functions and other services, who managed the bill, said an outright sale or lease was considered by the Senate, but the requested audit may give lawmakers options to consider the possible future sale of parts of the statewide fiber-optics network.

Another bill that won 49-0 approval, Senate File 2324, would let school districts use pick-up trucks to transport students to extra-curricular activities, but only if the students are in the truck cab and using a seat belt. Sen. Waylon Brown, R-St. Ansgar, said the need for the legislation arose from a situation where Sheldon school officials discovered after they bought a pickup for the activities of a Future Farmers of America chapter that the arrangement was forbidden by state rules.

The bill now heading to the Iowa House would let schools transport up to nine students as passengers inside a pickup cab provided there are seat belts for each. There would be weight limits for what could be carried in the truck bed and no student would be allowed in the pickup if it’s being used to tow something.

Brown said the intent of the bill is not to let schools use pickups on bus routes to and from school.

And finally, senators voted 39-10 to join the list of states that use purple paint on fence posts or trees to carry the same legal significance as "no trespassing" signs on private property. “This is an alternative option,” said Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, floor manager of Senate File 2101.