- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has teamed up with Republicans to try to reduce the high cost of health care, which he considers the biggest problem facing Virginia residents.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat expected to run for governor in 2005, said small businesses are suffering because the cost of insurance premiums has increased while the quality of health care has decreased.

“They are paying a lot more, and their employees are getting less,” Mr. Kaine told The Washington Times. “When I talk to business [owners] around the state, this is the first issue they bring up.”

Delegate Chris B. Saxman, Staunton Republican, agrees with Mr. Kaine and says General Assembly lawmakers can solve the problem by acting in a nonpartisan manner.

“I think it should be the [primary] issue of the next session,” said Mr. Saxman, who owns a bottled water operation in western Virginia. “The cost of health care is a problem. It’s the number one issue in Virginia right now. It’s really the unspoken issue.”

Mr. Saxman said issues such as transportation and higher education — which some think might dominate next year’s session — will be dwarfed by the health care issue.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, said the General Assembly should make changes at the state level to set an example for companies. He said Democrats and Republicans can join together to make the changes.

“I don’t see any reason for it to be a partisan issue,” he said.

Virginia Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on such issues as taxes and spending during General Assembly sessions, but most agree the health care problem affects all Virginians and can be addressed without partisan fighting.

Mr. Kaine said more than 1 million Virginians are without health insurance, which is one out of seven residents. He also said 75 percent of those uninsured work full time or live with somebody who works full time.

This year, Mr. Kaine formed the Commission on Small Business Insurance Costs. The commission — a bipartisan panel of business owners, employees, medical representatives, insurance companies and state and local officials — has been meeting around the state all summer.

Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, Gloucester Republican, serves on the commission, along with Mr. Saxman.

Mr. Saxman said his business has three branches and 40 employees, and he pays 100 percent of their health care premiums. It costs him $900 a month for a family of four to have insurance, and over the past few years the costs have increased by double digits.

Mr. Kaine said small businesses have seen their premiums for health care increase by 18 percent each year. And average workers saw their premiums increase four times faster than their salaries last year, he said.

Mr. Kaine said keeping health care affordable for small businesses is critical in helping Virginia’s economy over the long term because increasing health care costs eat away at business profits and eventually hurt retention and recruitment efforts.

One possible solution at the state level would be to create health savings accounts, which function as tax-deferred savings accounts into which employees deposit money, then withdraw it to pay for health care.

Mr. Hamilton has presented legislation to create the accounts as an option for state employees. He said they help employees save money and become more in charge of their health care choices. Mr. Saxman also supports the idea.

Mr. Kaine said he will consider “all possible solutions” to the problem, including the savings accounts, which have been discussed during the commission meetings.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore is expected to seek the Republican nomination for governor next year. Mr. Kilgore said his priorities for the upcoming session were presenting legislation to resolve Virginia’s gang problem and to help domestic violence victims.

He said his role as attorney general in reducing health care costs for small business is to keep prescription drugs affordable by holding pharmaceutical companies legally accountable for their actions.

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