House Passes Healthcare Bills

Will the Senate sign off on AHPs before Election Day?

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation by a 252-162 margin in May that would create Association Health Plans (AHPs) for small businesses. While President George W. Bush’s camp would want to see the Senate pass the legislation before November elections, some remain skeptical. Among other things, the legislation would allow small businesses to band together in nationwide health plans. It’s expected to face heavy contention in the Senate. Also, two other bills were passed that proponents argue will reduce the costs of healthcare for small businesses. The first bill expands the tax benefits of the Health Savings Accounts that were created as part of the Medicare legislation passed in June. The second proposes to reform medical malpractice liability, which supporters argue will bring down health insurance costs.

Experts are cautiously optimistic that the bill will make its way past the Senate. “There is a sense of urgency right now to see what can get done this year,” says Hector Barreto, who heads the Small Business Administration. “All of these business organizations are going to be advocating harder than ever.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is among the opponents of the legislation. “I think the reason they ran it again in the House was they thought they could bring on a few more votes, especially some Democrats that they thought might help break it loose in the Senate,” says Sandy Praeger, commissioner of insurance for Kansas and chair of the Health Insurance and Managed Care (B) Committee of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Barreto sees the bill as a small business boon. “We think that this can save at least 20%, maybe more, in year one of their health insurance premiums,” he says. “It’s not going to solve the healthcare crisis because there are other issues we have to deal with, like tort reform and … the rising costs of prescription drug benefits. But this begins to attack the problem in one of the critical areas — having access and having choices.”

Political wrangling could again delay AHPs. Amanda Austin, manager for legislative affairs for the National Federation of Independent Business, says the legislation is more likely to go through the Senate in 2005. “I think it’s going to be difficult for anything … to get done this year because it’s an election year. Kerry and Bush are against each other and nobody wants to let anybody get anything done that they can’t take credit for themselves,” she says. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) says the push for this legislation must come from the White House. “I feel confident that if the president wants to get this done, it will be done.”

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