Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't erode what works to fix what's broken

WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite promises by President Barack Obama, more than 70 million Americans who have health insurance through their jobs could be open to higher costs or denials of some coverage under a leading overhaul plan making its way through Congress.

That's because large employers that directly assume the cost and risk of health coverage for their workers - including Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and Xerox - wouldn't be subject to the same rules and restrictions that would be imposed on health insurers in the measure approved this month by the Senate Finance Committee.

Large companies that offer their workers such coverage are lobbying hard to keep the status quo and be shielded from costly new regulations and requirements in the final health measure currently being negotiated behind closed doors by Obama's top aides and leading Democrats.

Not all Democrats want to go along.

(AP) In this Sept. 29, 2009, file photo Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Jay Rockefeller,...
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"I want to make very clear that we cannot promise the American people that the insurance reforms they have been hearing so much about will benefit everyone, when the reality is that this bill leaves out" up to 55 percent, or 73 million people covered by such arrangements, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., when the Finance panel met recently to debate the measure. He tried unsuccessfully to change the legislation to require those plans to obey all rules applying to insurers.

What the firms want is to be able to keep extending health insurance to their workers free of many insurance regulations, such as those governing what services must be covered by a policy and when a person can be denied coverage.

That means that despite Obama's pledges that people will no longer be subject to the most egregious aspects of today's health care system - being denied insurance because of a health condition, shouldering crippling out-of-pocket costs, or facing limits or high costs for basic services and treatments - a wide swath of workers wouldn't enjoy the same guarantees.

Several big business groups have banded together as the National Coalition on Benefits to preserve their special status, originally granted in the early 1970s for employers that take on the risks and costs associated with insuring their own workers. They've been bringing executives from companies large and small to Capitol Hill for meetings with lawmakers to drive home their slogan: "Don't erode what works to fix what's broken."

The companies say they need flexibility to continue covering workers, and provisions included in other drafts of the health overhaul that would eventually subject them to some of the same rules as insurance companies - like requiring them to offer specific benefits - would crush their ability to do so.

(AP) In this Feb. 16, 2009, file photo Wal-Mart employee Sean Blais moves shopping carts in the...
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"The more the administrative burdens are, the more costly it becomes. These things tend to snowball and grow with time," said Martin Reiser, a lobbyist with Xerox who heads the coalition. "Our message is that the employment-based system is working, so don't try and fix us."


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