GOP Health Agenda Is Much To Industrys Liking

By

Washington

Republican Senate leaders last week announced their top priorities for the new Congress, including major health insurance initiatives in line with what the industry has been seeking.

Incoming Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., alongside Majority Leader William Frist, R-Tenn., announced at a press conference a major health reform initiative designed to reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of the health care system, improve access to health care, and reform the medical liability laws. The health care initiative was one of a “top 10″ list of priorities announced by the Republicans, which also included class-action tort reform.

“Rising health care costs and access to affordable health insurance are among the biggest worries Americans face today,” said Enzi. “At the heart of the legislation Sen. Frist and I will introduce will be proposals developed last year by the Senate Republican Task Force on Health Care Costs and the Uninsured as well as many of President Bushs health care reforms.”

Although the specific language of the measure, known as S. 4, the “Healthy America Act of 2005,” has not been drafted, an outline provided by the Republicans listed its specific aims. One provision will seek to expand the availability of health savings accounts through an above-the-line tax deduction for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, and providing additional support for lower income people and college students. Tax deductions also would be created for the purchase of long term care insurance, and family caregivers would be offered increased support. Additionally, the bill would allow those starting a business to cover the costs of health insurance as business expenses under the Assets for Independence Act.

Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of Americas Health Insurance Plans, Washington, said the priorities laid out in the bill are in line with those of health insurers.

“Were seeing a broad and deep health care agenda,” she said. “A number of the priorities in the bill resonate closely with our industry.”

The focus on medical liability tort reform is a major factor for the AHIP, she said, and the group is “working to generate more support in the Senate,” where previous tort reform efforts have fallen off-track. Ignagni said she expects the swift movement of a similar Republican priority, the “class-action fairness” legislation, should improve the chances for passage of a medical liability bill. “Class action moving forward should improve the environment,” she said.

The class-action tort reforms have been passed by the House and came very close to passage in several trips to the Senate floor in recent years. It will be the first of the “top 10″ priority bills to be moved in the new Senate, and given the new balance of power in the chamber and changes made to address Democratic concerns, it is expected to pass.

Another priority, of both the proposed legislation and, according to Ignagni, health insurers, is improving communication within the medical system.

“Health care costs are increasing faster than any other basic service in American society,” said Enzi. “One of the key contributors to these escalating costs is the problem health care providers have exchanging data critical to patient care. My colleagues and I will include proposals in the bill we will introduce to speed the adoption of new standards and procedures to help health care providers talk to each otherreforms I believe eventually will save billions of dollars and, potentially, many thousands of lives.”

The bill proposes to create electronic medical records, and for establishing a voluntary error reporting system to allow physicians to report mistakes and learn from them without the fear of additional litigation.

“Right now, we have no infrastructure where physicians can learn from their mistakes because theyre afraid to report them,” Ignagni said.

The proposed bill also seeks to ease the regulatory burdens on the health care industry through the establishment of a mandate review commission charged with eliminating “unnecessary or duplicative regulations that inappropriately increase health care costs,” according to the bill summary. Such a commission, Ignagni said, would be “very important” to making health insurance more affordable by reducing costly state mandates, which, she said, can be a “major barrier to offering affordable products.”

The inclusion of long term care, and the recognition of its potential role in helping to provide health care to more Americans, was welcomed by Ignagni. “Were excited to see long term care prioritized,” she said.

AHIP has been speaking to the Republican senators through the process of crafting the legislation, Ignagni noted, and will continue to do so as it moves down the legislative path.

“Weve been talking to key senators,” she said, including Frist and Enzi and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, whose committee would also have an interest in the bill. Although there is no schedule for hearings on the bill, Ignagni said she expected the committees to begin “mapping out” a plan as early as this week.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, January 27, 2005. Copyright 2005 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.