- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Advocates for a bill that would allow small businesses to join association health plans yesterday ramped up the lobbying campaign.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington trade group of 600,000 members that wants to offer the health plans, yesterday ran a full-page ad in USA Today to combat the Senate’s inactivity.

“Our members are laying down the gauntlet that we are sick and tired of being sick without health insurance,” NFIB President Jack Faris said yesterday at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

More than 43.6 million Americans were uninsured last year; 25 million of them were owners, employees or dependents of small businesses with fewer than 100 employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The group plans to pressure Congress for a vote on the bill before Election Day, with support from its members and 160 other organizations, Mr. Faris said. He did not say how much the campaign would cost.



The Small Business Health Fairness Act, which passed the House in June, has been held up in the Senate since it was introduced in March 2003.

Several lawmakers in the Senate Health Care Task Force have been trying to add the bill to a health care package for the uninsured but concede their efforts have been stalled.

The legislation would allow small businesses to pool their resources in a national organization or trade group to receive cheaper health insurance. Organizations offering the group health plans would be exempted from states’ minimum coverage standards and subject only to federal requirements.

The House has passed similar versions of the bill six times without it getting through the Senate. President Bush, who has made the legislation part of his economic platform, has repeatedly called on Congress to pass the measure.

U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said at the news conference that group health plans could save small-business owners up to 25 percent on their insurance premiums.

The association health plans “give small businesses the same coverage as used in large corporations and unions,” Mrs. Chao said.

But critics say the bill’s exemption of state coverage requirements for national organizations will shrink benefits and open the health-insurance market for “cherry picking,” a practice of insuring the healthiest people in a group.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a Kansas City, Mo., organization, said association health plans would increase the number of insurance-fraud cases and lower standards for certain business groups that have higher health risks.

Spokesman Brian Webb said the Labor Department does not have the resources or the budget to regulate additional health plans if the bill were signed into law.

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