Agent associations are welcoming the attention President Bush gave to health insurance Monday during his State of the Union address.

Bush called during the speech for expanding the health savings account program, giving individuals who buy their own health insurance the same tax breaks that employers get, giving the information they need to make better health care purchasing decisions, setting up an association health plan program, and curbing medical malpractice suits.

In the past few years, many health finance proposals Bush has discussed in his State of the Union addresses have showed up in his budget proposals. The president has suggested, for example, that Congress pay for a new tax break for purchasers of individual health coverage by capping the amount employers can deduct for group coverage.

The White House now is putting the finishing touches on the latest round of budget proposals.

The National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va., and the Association of Health Insurance Advisors, Falls Church, Va., an arm of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, welcomed the emphasis Bush gave to topics such as the HSA program and changes in medical malpractice laws.

“Our health care system and the consumers who depend on it are facing an unprecedented crisis of rising costs, resulting in reduced access to both quality health care and affordable health insurance,” NAHU Chief Executive Janet Trautwein says in a statement.

Taking steps such as expanding HSAs to make them more appealing and equalizing the tax treatment of individual and group health coverage could help put private health coverage within the reach of many more Americans, Trautwein says.

The kinds of changes the president recommended can help make the existing private health care delivery system work better, according to AHIA President Thomas Vander Wal.

“Reformation, not replacement, is what we need,” Vander Wal says.

The National Business Group on Health, Washington, an employer group, put out a general statement about the concept of equalizing tax treatment of individual health insurance buyers and group health insurance buyers.

The NBGH believes that “individuals who purchase health insurance on their own should receive the same tax advantages” as employers, the group says.

But the NBGH “opposes capping or eliminating the current tax exclusion for employer contributions to health benefits,” the group says. “The current tax treatment encourages employers to offer and employees to obtain coverage.”

In addition, “the NBGH opposes any mandates that would force employers to offer health coverage that many companies voluntarily provide even in a tough and increasingly globally, more competitive economy,” the group says.

Most employers already want to offer health coverage, and the best way to expand the percentage of workers with group health coverage is to make it easier and cheaper for employers to offer coverage, the NBGH says.

The NBGH might support laws requiring individuals to buy coverage for themselves and their children, if individuals have access to a range of affordable coverage choices.

Requiring individual coverage could protect individuals who think nothing will happen to them while improving the risk profile of the health insurance risk pool, says NBGH President Helen Darling.