DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate approved a health benefit plan 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.”