America’s Health Insurance Plans last week launched an initiative to persuade the federal government and the states to provide access to affordable health insurance for the uninsured through a comprehensive new set of what the group’s officials are calling “targeted policy proposals.”

The proposals, taken together, would expand eligibility for public programs, enable all consumers to purchase health insurance with pre-tax dollars, provide financial assistance to help working families afford coverage and encourage states to develop and implement access proposals.

Specifically, the AHIP plan calls for enactment of federal legislation that provides significant financial incentives to states and makes changes to federal tax policy to make health coverage more affordable.

A critical component of the program calls for expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to make eligible all uninsured children from families with incomes under 200% of the federal poverty level.

The fact that the program expires in 2007 may work to the benefit of AHIP because Congress is seen as likely to renew it. “It’s a logical starting point,” confirmed Mohit Ghose, an AHIP spokesman.

“No one piece of our initiative takes precedence over another, but this would be a good starting point toward our desire for a federal/state and public/private partnership to provide healthcare for all children in 3 years and 95% adults in 10 years,” he said.

Later on the same day that AHIP unveiled its proposals, the Subcommittee on Health Care of the Committee on Finance scheduled a hearing for testimony on “The SCHIP Program from the States’ Perspective.”

“The leaders of the nation’s health insurers are united in a strong belief that every American should have access to health care coverage,” said J. Grover Thomas Jr., chairman, Trustmark Mutual Holding Company, and chairman of AHIP’s board. “This bold program would expand coverage to tens of millions within a framework that is fiscally sound and promotes individual responsibility.”

AHIP estimates that full implementation of this proposal would cost the federal government approximately $300 billion over a 10-year period.

However, one component of the program is likely to run into trouble in the upcoming Democratic-controlled Congress, especially in the House.

That’s because the AHIP initiative calls for 2 key improvements to be made in the existing rules governing Health Savings Accounts. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., presumptive chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., presumptive chairman of the panel’s Health Subcommittee, are opponents of HSAs. While it is unlikely they will cause Congress to abandon the program, most healthcare analysts believe they will seek to block any expansion of the program.

Under the proposed AHIP expansion of HSAs, the new program, to be called Universal Health Accounts, calls for allowing their owners to pay premiums for any type of health insurance plan, including HMOs and PPOs. UHA accounts also could be used for qualifying healthcare expenses, such as physician or hospital charges, if the UHA is accompanied by a qualifying high-deductible health plan, such as a plan used in conjunction with an HSA under current law.

Second, the proposed UHA would establish a matching incentive, or “health saver’s credit,” for contributions by moderate-income individuals, offering a new mechanism to subsidize coverage for working families.

AHIP also released a poll indicating Americans believe access to health care should be the top domestic priority when the new Congress convenes next year.

Conducted by Ayres, McHenry & Associates and the Glover Park Group on behalf of AHIP, the survey found 80% percent of adults want Congress and state legislatures to do more to extend access to coverage.

“Americans across the political spectrum are saying that government should take action to improve access to health care coverage, but they do not support a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Dr. Whitfield Ayres, president of Ayres, McHenry & Associates. “Promoting access to health care coverage is an issue Americans agree on regardless of party or ideology.”