With 45 million Americans living without health insurance, Congress has decided once again to take action to expand health care access to America's working families.
Last summer the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 1.4 million more Americans were without health insurance compared to the previous year. More than 60 percent of these uninsured Americans either work for a small business or are dependent upon someone who does. The cost and availability of health insurance is the No. 1 issue for America's small-business owners.
After years of setbacks, the Bush administration and the small business community are making progress on Small Business Health Plan (SBHP) legislation, also referred to as Association Health Plans (AHPs). SBHP legislation has always been a top priority for members of both the Republican and Democratic parties for several years.
The House of Representatives has consistently supported legislation to expand health care access for American families, approving SBHP legislation eight times. The most recent action taken by the House was in July 2005, when a bi-partisan majority overwhelmingly backed the Small Business Health Fairness Act (H.R. 525) legislation to expand access to quality health care for millions of working families through the creation of AHPs.
While their legislative peers have made great strides in the SBHP arena, the Senate has remained in a stalemate that is, until recently. In a move praised by many, members of the Senate Health Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee approved S. 1955, legislation introduced by the chairman of the committee, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), making it the first time ever a Senate committee has approved legislation that contains AHP components. While many see this as a major step forward for congressional efforts on behalf of uninsured working American families, the fight is still not over.
Unlike their counterparts in the House, members of the Senate have been unable to come to a consensus on any legislation relating to SBHPs. Supporters of this legislation are hopeful that the Senate will now be able to overcome differences and approve this much needed legislation to alleviate the strain on small businesses.
When passed, the Small Business Health Fairness Act would create AHPs to increase small business' bargaining power with health insurance providers, giving them freedom from costly state-mandated benefit packages, and lower their overhead costs by as much as 30 percent benefits that large corporations and unions already enjoy because of their larger economies of scale.
S. 1955 will provide new options for associations to offer health benefits to small- and mid-sized businesses, thus helping to ensure that working families have access to affordable and secure health benefits. Also, the bill contains provisions to ensure there are no adverse impacts on existing insurance markets and strong consumer protection provisions to ensure that benefits provided through SBHPs are secure.
The legislation currently in the Senate is supported and endorsed by a broad and diverse coalition of more than 160 groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Association of Builders and Contractors, The Latino Coalition, National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Women Business Owners, and the National Restaurant Association.
In April, supporters of Enzi's bill will have presented their floor debate in support of this legislation.
It is now up to the U.S. Senate to pass this critical piece of legislation, which will be one step closer to expanded health care access for scores of American families.
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