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Reform Optimism Increases

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More insurance and benefits groups seem to be warming up today to the idea that Congress will enact a health reform bill that they can live with.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., drew the attention of health and benefits groups earlier today by releasing a health reform bill draft that includes many provisions sought by consumer groups, such as a guaranteed-issue provision and a ban on benefits caps, while leaving out any provision that could create a government-run, “public option” health insurance program.

The bill would impose a 35% excise test on “high cost” health plans, and it would cap flexible spending account contributions at $2,000 per year.

At press time, no Republicans had promised to back the bill, and some liberal Democrats were attacking the draft, arguing that the concessions to Republican are too great, especially in light of the lack of Republican support for the draft.

But the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, Falls Church, Va., has congratulated Baucus on the release of the proposal.

“We share the chairman’s goal of spreading comprehensive health insurance to millions of Americans not now covered,” NAIFA President Thomas Currey says in a statement about the bill. “We are particularly pleased to note that the chairman has opted to move away from a government-run health insurance plan. We believe that in doing so Chairman Baucus recognizes that the chance of actually achieving comprehensive reform this year increases. We pledge NAIFA’s help in crafting a final proposal that will be supported by all Americans.”

Currey notes that, in addition to leaving out a government plan provision, Baucus has left out a long term care insurance provision included in some of the other major health reform proposals.

“In doing so, the chairman’s proposal recognizes that there are better ways to address long-term care needs,” Currey says.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, also has welcomed release of the Baucus draft.

“Senator Max Baucus has led an unprecedented and rigorous bipartisan process to enact health care reform this year and challenged all stakeholders to contribute to this process,” AHIP President Karen Ignagni says. “The introduction of legislation in the Finance Committee is a very important step in the health care reform process.”

This year, “health plans have stepped up and proposed robust insurance market reforms to ensure nobody falls through the cracks and a complete overhaul of administrative processes that will improve efficiency, reduce paperwork, and free up time for doctors to focus on patient care,” Ignagni says. “We also advocated and support a new reinsurance mechanism to assist in the transition to new market rules.

“We are committed to working with policymakers and stakeholders to find savings in the Medicare program, including Medicare Advantage, but it is important to ensure seniors’ health care choices are protected.”

Ignagni has expressed concern about the Baucus co-op proposal, calling it “government-created” and “untested.”

“We believe there is an opportunity for additional system-wide cost containment to ensure coverage is more affordable and to put our health care system on a sustainable and fiscally responsible path,” Ignagni says.

“New taxes on health care coverage will have the opposite effect by making coverage less affordable for families and employers across the country,” Ignagni adds.

“As the process progresses, health plans will continue working with members of Congress to enact bipartisan legislation this year that will cover all Americans, make coverage more affordable, and improve quality,” Ignagni says.

The American Benefits Council, Washington, also has expressed reservations about some Baucus draft provisions but positive feelings about the draft’s arrival.

“With so much at stake, and so many stakeholders, reform of the American health care system must be undertaken thoughtfully and cooperatively,” says James Klein, the council’s president. “We congratulate Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus for his tireless work the past several months and on today’s release of The America’s Healthy Future Act, which is not a perfect bill but represents a critical step toward a comprehensive solution to the nation’s health care problems.”

The proposal “avoids many of the destabilizing provisions included in other legislative proposals, such as the employer ‘pay’ or ‘play’ mandate, unlimited state law remedies for employers obtaining coverage within the insurance exchanges, federal waivers to states that enact single-payer systems and the public health insurance option,” Klein says

The council does have concerns about the proposed excise tax, “other fees on health insurers and other stakeholders, and the tax on valuable prescription drug coverage for retirees,” Klein says. “These costs are all likely to eventually be paid by employers and employees and would therefore make health care less affordable.”

Klein issued a plea for Democrats and Republicans to work together on health reform.

“The most successful and enduring public initiatives are those that are developed and approved with broad bipartisan support,” Klein says. “The House of Representatives tri-committee bill and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill do not meet this standard, but the Senate Finance Committee proposal offers reason for optimism that broad agreement on health care reform may be possible this year.”

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