WASHINGTON BUREAU — Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee today voted 13-10 to pass a health system bill after amending it to protect the ability of health agents to act as consumer advisors.

HELP Committee members passed the Affordable Health Choices Act, which does not yet have a bill number, on a party-line vote after completing a month-long drafting process.

Meanwhile, producer groups that brought more than 1,000 agents and brokers to Washington for a “fly-in” were expressing concern about the possibility of excessive government interference in the health insurance market.

FLY-IN PARTICIPANTS GET BRIEFING

The groups sponsoring the 2-day “fly-in” this week are the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, Alexandria, Va.; the National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va.; the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, Washington; the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, Falls Church, Va.; and AHIA-NAIFA, NAIFA’s health insurance affiliate.

Producers and health insurers have been most vocal about provisions of the HELP health bill, the Affordable Health Choices Act, which would create a public health coverage option administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and another section that would create a “Navigators” system to help individuals and small groups find health coverage.

“Health insurance agents and brokers strongly oppose a government-run public plan that would unfairly compete with the private health insurance market, divide risk pools and pile on significant unnecessary costs to health care reform compared to sensible improvements to private insurance markets,” the producer groups that organized the fly-in say in a joint statement.

But producer group representatives were expressing cautious optimism about the Navigators system provision.

The bill approved by the HELP Committee includes a Navigators system amendment, offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that received strong support from producers.

The original version of the Navigators provision would have awarded grants to public and private entities to “conduct public education; distribute fair and impartial information regarding health plans; [and] assist with enrollment and provide information.”

That original version would have barred agents from participation in the Navigators health education and enrollment assistance program.

The Hatch amendment adds “other licensed insurance agents and brokers” to the list of individuals and organizations authorized to serve as Navigators.

The Hatch amendment also mandates that any information given to consumers who use the Navigators system be provided by “qualified, and licensed, if appropriate” personnel.”

Fly-in attendees heard an update about the Hatch amendment and other HELP Committee actions and concerns at a breakfast briefing, held before members were scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to tell members of Congress and congressional aides about the role that agents play in helping consumers get health coverage.

Charles Symington, senior vice president for government affairs at IIABA, said at the briefing that the producer groups were surprised that so many agents had decided to participate in the fly-in.

The groups initially had expected only 400 to attend, Symington said.

THE HELP BILL

The 1,018-page HELP health bill, one of the major health bills attracting producers’ attention this summer, has 3 divisions. One covers affordable health care choices; a second, Medicare and Medicaid changes; and a third, public workforce and health care development.

The House bill calls for cuts in payments to Medicare Advantage starting in 2011, with payments to insurers in excess of those paid for fee-for-services plans to be based on a complex formula partially related to quality-of-service standards.

The bill would prohibit insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and it also would require all U.S. residents to obtain health insurance. The bill would impose a tax on individuals who fail to purchase healthcare coverage.

The bill also would scale back Medicare and Medicaid payments to hospitals and doctors.

Most of the revenue-related provisions appear to relate to the health care system, according to the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, Falls Church, Va.,

The bill also would impose surtaxes ranging from 1% to 5.4% to individual taxpayers with annual incomes over $35,000, and it would codify the Economic Substance Doctrine. The doctrine holds that a transaction will have economic substance only if (a) the transaction changes in a meaningful way the taxpayer’s economic position, and (b) the taxpayer has a substantial purpose for entering into such transaction. Some believe this provision could affect life underwriters.

THE DRAFTING SCHEDULE

Now that the Senate HELP Committee has finished work on its version of the health bill, the Senate Finance Committee says it will start to draft its version of the bill Thursday. The Senate HELP and Finance committees hope to mesh their bills and bring a combined bill to the Senate floor before the Senate leaves for its summer recess, in early August.

Over in the House, the House Ways and Means Committee is set to take up a bill drafted primarily by Democrats Thursday. The House Education and Labor Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee then will get a chance to mark up the bill. House Democratic leaders want to get a health bill through the House before the House starts its month-long summer recess July 31.

Congressional Democratic leaders hope the Senate and House can start hammering out a final, compromise version of the bill by October.