Congress must first weigh the cost of every proposal as it seeks to reform the health insurance market, said Janet Trautwein, executive vice president and CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va., at a health care conference organized by members of the Senate Finance Committee.

This means, Trautwein said, “not just whether or not the market reform idea includes cost containment elements, but also whether or not the market reform idea itself would cause health insurance premiums to increase.

“Great care needs to be taken when implementing market reforms on a national level to not inadvertently induce cost increases in the existing private market system,” she said. No matter how “fair” a market reform idea might seem on its surface, “it’s not at all ‘fair’ if it also prices people out of the marketplace,” she added.

Trautwein was one of four health care experts who testified at a breakout session at the Health Reform Summit chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

The all-day session covered several healthcare topics and began with a keynote address by Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Board chairman.

Bernanke said that U.S. health care costs are likely to claim a bigger share of household spending in years to come, pressuring the government to absorb more health care costs.

Rising medical costs are likely to restrict access to health care for lower income people, Bernanke said, because both doctors’ fees and health insurance will become unaffordable.

To buffer the effects of rising health care costs on household budgets, the government may have to absorb an increasingly large share of the bill for those costs, he said. This will put “even greater pressure on government budgets than official projections suggest,” he added.

Another participant in the insurance market reform session was Reed Tuckson, executive vice president and chief of medical affairs for UnitedHealth Group, Minneapolis, Minn., who said recent market research by UnitedHealth “and our experience” indicates that consumers value affordability, choice and simplicity most when choosing a health care plan.

Mirroring Trautwein’s comments, he said market research by employers shows that cost reduction “is at the top of the list for all employer groups large and small, followed by quality.”

He added that employers are exiting the health care market at growing rates, but many are open to alternative solutions, “if price points can be met.”

Though small employers recognize the need to shift cost to employees, most resist doing so, he added.

He also said employers value solutions focused on health management and “deeper employee engagement. They are looking for help educating employees about healthcare trends, cost shifting realities and health management.”