Patient Protection Getting Quiet Play Despite Congress’ Focus On Terrorism

By Steven Brostoff

Washington

With the attention of Congress and the nation focused on issues arising from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and the current military campaign, other legislative concerns have been pushed into the background.

In particular, health insurance, which threatened to be a highly divisive issue during the fall, has remained largely dormant in the aftermath of the attacks.

However, the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), a Washington-based association of employee benefit plan sponsors, reports that Congressional leaders are still quietly working on patients bill of rights legislation.

The House and Senate passed two different versions of the legislation. The Senate bill, S. 1052, is strongly opposed by health insurers and employers, who charge that it would impose unlimited liability on health plans, forcing many plans to drop coverage completely.

The House bill, H.R. 2563, is regarded as less onerous than S. 1052, in that it caps liability and makes it more difficult for patients to sue their health plans over coverage disputes.

However, insurers and employers say H.R. 2563 would still lead to higher insurance costs.

According to ERIC, House and Senate leaders remain hopeful they can develop a consensus bill before Congress recesses, which is expected by the end of October.

So far, a House-Senate Conference Committee, which would work out the differences between the two bills, has not been named.

However, ERIC says, its Capitol Hill sources say that if an agreement is to be reached, it will not come through the normal conference committee process.

Rather, ERIC says, a deal would involve behind-the-scenes negotiations among key individuals on Capitol Hill and Bush administration officials.

ERIC says a conference committee is unlikely because it would be contentious, and everyone wants to maintain a bipartisan spirit in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack.

Meanwhile, the United States Census Bureau reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans declined between 1999 and 2000 from 39.3. million to 38.7 million.

Some 14% of Americans had no health insurance coverage at all during 2000, down from 14.3% in 1999, the Bureau reports.

The Bureau adds that employer-provided coverage also increased slightly during the year. Some 64.1% of the population had employer-provided coverage for some or all of 2000, the Bureau says.

This is a 0.6% increase from 1999.

The Bureaus report, however, drew warnings from health care interest groups that problems remain in the system.

Donald Young, interim president of the Health Insurance Association of America, Washington, says that while the reduction in the number of uninsured Americans is good news, HIAA is concerned the number will increase soon.

For one thing, he says, overall health care spending is increasing. In addition, Young says, the economy is faltering and significant numbers of workers are being laid off.

“The combination of spending increases and a weaker economy threaten to push millions of Americans into the ranks of the uninsured,” Young says.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, the Washington-based consumer group, agrees.

The Bureaus report, he says, is based on an outdated economic snapshot.

The report is based on data collected in the year 2000, before the economic slump and health insurance premium increases hit, Pollack says.

“Thus, the number of uninsured Americans today is probably well above 40 million, and is likely to grow in the period ahead,” he adds.

But while agreeing that the Bureaus numbers do not tell the whole story, HIAA and Families USA offered different solutions to the problem of the uninsured.

Young says the answer is to keep insurance premiums affordable. This could be done by providing tax incentives to make health insurance more affordable to middle-income Americans, he says.

This is also the wrong time to pass expensive mandates such as a patients bill of rights, he adds.

But Pollack calls for an expansion of existing public health insurance programs. Indeed, he says, this should be a national priority.

Meanwhile, Angela Hunter, director of federal affairs for the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, Alexandria, Va., says Medical Savings Accounts are vital to reducing the number of uninsured Americans.

“Over the last two years, almost half of all MSA purchases were made by individuals who previously had no health insurance,” Hunter says.

Finally, on the issue of terrorism reinsurance, it appears likely that any legislation providing a federal backstop for losses stemming from a terrorist attack will not include life insurance, at least not at this point.

The property-casualty associations, which have been taking the lead on this issue, have agreed on a consensus plan that would establish two reinsurance pools, one covering commercial lines and the other covering personal lines.

However, there is no provision for a life insurance pool.

Representatives of the American Council of Life Insurers, Washington, have said life insurance companies are still evaluating the need for a federal backstop covering life insurance.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 15, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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