- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

The insurance industry and consumer groups came together yesterday to introduce a proposal to significantly put a dent in the number of uninsured Americans.

The proposal mixes an expansion of federal programs with tax incentives that will make it easier for families to purchase private health insurance.

While the groups do not suggest ways to fund the new proposals, the announcement is indicative of a growing sentiment on Capitol Hill and in states across the country that the rising number of uninsured people is a problem and is dealing a crushing blow to businesses.

“There is a broader understanding today in business that they are paying for the uninsured indirectly,” said Robert Crane, vice president of research and policy development at health insurer Kaiser Permanente.

The only cost estimate offered by the coalition was an additional $45 billion for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal health program for children.

Nearly 47 million Americans are uninsured, and the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine estimates about 18,000 people die each year from diseases that would have been treatable or preventable if they had health coverage.

“We debate on this issue day in and day out, and every day somebody dies,” said Reed Tucker, senior vice president at the United Health Foundation, a nonprofit, private foundation to support health professionals. “We are sick and tired of the debate.”

The Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured is made up of 16 national organizations that have played leading roles in every federal health-policy debate, often on opposing sides. Despite their divergent political stances, the groups committed to push lawmakers to act on a two-phased proposal. The AFL-CIO pulled out of the coalition because the final proposal would not call for universal health care, said JoAnn Volk, a health care lobbyist for the labor federation.

The agreement includes a balance of private and public initiatives and does not include any mandates on employers or states.

“Our unprecedented agreement and coalition should serve as a model for Congress and the president to see that health coverage is expanded to as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.

If successful, the plan would cover about half of the 47 million uninsured Americans and nearly 90 percent of the uninsured children, said Mary Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council.

A few of the participating organizations include AARP, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, Families USA, Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Permanente, United Health Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

With Congress scheduled to consider the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in the coming months, the groups are looking for an immediate impact. The first phase of the agreement would provide states with $45 billion to enroll children eligible for the program but who have not signed up, which is about 6 million.

Under the new House budget rules, which require any increases in financing to be offset by cuts, it could be difficult to convince lawmakers to significantly increase spending on children’s health insurance.

“This plan gives policy-makers a lot of food for thought. We’ll need to consider all of the potential consequences and fiscal challenges of each item,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.

The proposal also calls for a new tax credit to help families cover some of the cost of providing private health insurance for their children. Under the proposal, families earning 300 percent below the federal poverty level, which is $60,000 annually for a family of four, would be eligible.

Despite the proposal’s pressure on federal funds, the coalition is confident Congress will act.

“If there is any time do get this done, this is it,” said Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the leading trade association for health insurance companies. “There is a political will to do this.”

However, one health care analyst said the proposal will not fix the issue.

“We do not need to spend more money on health care,” said John Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit policy-research firm. “By expanding public programs, people will drop their private care.”

Likely to follow the 2008 presidential election, the second phase of the proposal targets uninsured adults by giving states flexibility and funds to expand Medicaid eligibility to cover all adults with incomes below the federal poverty level, millions of whom are currently ineligible for public coverage. For those with higher incomes, a tax credit would be established to help cover the costs of private insurance.

The coalition’s announcement comes on the heels of moves by states to insure more people. This year, Massachusetts will implement a plan requiring residents to purchase health insurance, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced a universal health care plan.

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