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Government Affairs

Question: What's black and white, good for the economy, good for small businesses and makes perfect sense?

Answer: Something most Senators can't see with their own eyes and rarely vote for!

OK, so I'm a bit cynical about the world's most deliberative body — the U.S. Senate. Perhaps that's why they call it the graveyard of good ideas. This year, I hope a majority of Senators will prove me wrong — at least when it comes to Association Health Plan (AHP) legislation.

I've reported to you numerous times on these pages about the importance of AHP legislation to MCAA members (see Feb. 2003, pg. 10; April 2003, pg. 8; and Aug. 2003, pg. 10) and praised the House of Representatives for passing a bill — only to have it die in the Senate. Well, I've been reading my tarot cards, and the outlook for action by the "upper chamber" appears to be much more positive.

Yes, the House will take the lead again. In fact, on February 2nd, a bipartisan group of Representatives led by Sam Johnson (R-TX) introduced the Small Business Health Fairness Act (H.R. 525) to significantly expand access to quality health insurance for uninsured working families across the country. The measure would allow small businesses to band together and purchase quality health insurance at a lower cost for their employees and their families. The AHP bill would also increase small businesses' bargaining power with health insurance providers, give them freedom from costly state-mandated benefit packages, and lower their overhead costs by as much as 30% — benefits that large corporations and unions already enjoy because of their larger economies of scale.

More than 60% — over 24 million — of uninsured Americans work for small businesses. Some of these workers are offered insurance and turn it down because they can't afford their share of the rising cost of healthcare premiums. H.R. 525 will put small businesses on equal footing with Fortune 500 companies and labor unions when it comes to providing health insurance to their employees.

In the last few years, health insurance premiums have been rising in double-digit increments. As a result, employers are either being forced to drop coverage altogether or pass along more of the costs of health benefits to their employees. Some companies have even resorted to hiring their own physicians, setting up clinics and establishing no-smoking policies in order to keep costs down. One of the ways to reduce these spiraling costs is to inject some competition into the small group market. We can do that through the enactment of AHP legislation.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is expected to move quickly on H.R. 525 and report it to the floor for a vote. In the last Congress, the bill passed the House by a vote of 252-162, with the support of 37 Democrats. This year, that vote margin may be even larger, but the most encouraging news comes from Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), the new Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

During a recent meeting with Enzi, he told me personally that he intends to move an AHP bill this year — and sooner rather than later. That was music to my ears! And, for the first time in more than four years, the HELP Committee may even schedule a hearing on AHPs so we could confront the opposition — primarily the Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies — head on.

Don't get me wrong: Passing an AHP bill in the Senate will not by any means be an easy task. Our coalition of 160 trade associations has its work cut out. But I know Enzi to be an extremely bright, hard-working member of Congress, and when he makes up his mind to get something done, things happen. And I'm going to work just as hard to help him get it done!

Stay tuned.



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