As the momentum for healthcare reform builds, health insurance companies and agents and brokers are focusing on battling a proposed “public option” and securing the future role of agents and brokers as Congress starts work on fashioning legislation designed to totally revamp the nation’s healthcare delivery system.

“Congress has made it clear it wants a bill this year reforming the nation’s healthcare system and they have developed a very aggressive timetable to pass such legislation,” said Robert Zirkelbach, director of strategic communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents health insurers.

Both AHIP and a newly-formed coalition of all health insurance, life insurance and property-casualty agents groups have voiced opposition to the “public plan,” which would use Medicare and Medicaid to provide a competing government-sponsored healthcare plan designed to force private insurers to hold down rates.

At the same time, the agents’ groups are working to ensure that they have a role going forward in the new system and that their commissions aren’t sacrificed to hold rates down.

While there is stronger support in the House than in the Senate for the public plan, the consensus is that the ultimate result will be a compromise proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

His proposal is for the public plan to be held in abeyance for several years in hopes that the private sector will use that period of time to impose reforms that will eliminate the need for the public option.

For the agents, one proposal suggested by the Senate Finance Committee is creation of health exchanges, or “connectors.”

This proposal would empower the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish Web portals that direct individuals and small businesses to available insurance options in their state.

These proposals would:

–Include a tax credit calculator so individuals and small businesses could determine their true cost of coverage.

–Inform individuals of eligibility for public programs.

–Present standardized information related to insurance options, including quality ratings.

John Greene, vice president of congressional affairs at the National Association of Health Underwriters, acknowledged that, if it is not modeled correctly it could lead to “shutting out agents.”

But, he said, “I don’t think that is their objective, and it doesn’t have to cut us out if it is done right.”

Specifically, he said, “They have to allow the use of agents and brokers by creating a level field both inside and outside the connector.”

The Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee will both soon start work drafting bills, as will the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

At the same time, the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee will deal with the tax issues involved.

The leadership of the committees recently told President Obama that each chamber hopes to pass its version of the legislation by the time Congress departs for the August recess, according to AHIP’s Zirkelbach.

That will set the stage for the staffs that will reconcile the bills to spend the summer outlining the differences between the two bills and coming up with suggested options for compromise.

“This is an urgent national priority,” Zirkelbach said. “Congress and stakeholders have for the first time agreed to work together to draft compromise legislation,” he said.

“There is a great deal of momentum for healthcare reform, not only from Congress and the Obama administration, but from policyholders and stakeholders,” Zirkelbach added.