NAHB Pushes in Senate for Association Health Plans
Last week, after more than a decade of debate on the topic and little or no Senate interest, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee took up the issue of whether bona fide trade associations should be allowed to offer health plans to their members across state lines.
HELP Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) introduced S. 1955, the “Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization Act,” and the bill was approved by the panel on March 15 by a vote of 11-9.
The measure, which contains several provisions to address the crisis of the uninsured, including association-sponsored health plans (called “small business health plans” in this version of the legislation), bears some resemblance to legislation passed by the House of Representatives in 2005. However, many differences remain between the House and Senate versions on how the plans would operate.
“NAHB’s members appreciate the effort undertaken by HELP Committee Chairman Enzi and co-sponsors Senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to address the crisis of the uninsured by investigating methods of providing opportunities for thousands of small businesses across the nation to get access to plans,” said NAHB President David Pressly.
NAHB, which has championed association health plan legislation during the past several years, sent a letter to the full HELP Committee prior to the markup supporting the committee’s efforts to address the issue.
As the measure advances through the legislative process, NAHB will continue to work with key senators to address significant differences between S. 1955 and S. 406 regarding self-funding measures for association health plans, state licensing provisions and stipulations that call for certain "benefit mandates.” The goal is to refine S. 1955 as it moves to the Senate floor in order to make it economically practical for trade associations to offer association health plans to their members.
“We hope that the marketplace changes championed by the Senate legislation will ultimately provide small businesses with more choices, better access and more stability in health insurance plans,” said Pressly, who noted that more than 43 million Americans are currently uninsured, almost 60% of whom are employed by small businesses.
Kentucky Builder Cites Skyrocketing Health Premiums
Custom home builders Sue and Barry Jenkins, who own Keystone Custom Homes based in Prospect, Ky., say that their health care premiums have skyrocketed during the past two years, and that effective association health plan legislation is necessary to rein in runaway costs.
“In the last two years, our premiums have shot up $440 per month, and as of May 1 we will be paying $760 a month for a family health plan,” said Sue Jenkins. “We appreciate NAHB’s diligent efforts to urge Congress to enact association health plan legislation that would help our family and countless other small businesses across the country to access greater health insurance options and lower premiums. Congress needs to act quickly to address this urgent matter.”
Small Businesses Can’t Keep Up With Costs
“If we transform health insurance to a market where small employers and family-owned businesses can demand better benefits at better prices, insurance companies would be forced either to keep up with the competition, or lose their market share,” Sen. Enzi said.
“With the help of a diverse group of senators and business groups representing small business, we’ve bridged the gap between small business proponents of traditional AHPs and state-based interests worried about the prospects of dramatic regulatory changes in health insurance markets,” Enzi added.
Noting that health care premiums are experiencing double-digit growth annually, Sen. Nelson said the bill is vital to help small businesses cope with soaring health care costs. “Small businesses can’t keep up with the costs. As a result, fewer employers are offering health coverage and fewer employees are covered. This action by the HELP Committee today is the first step in addressing this problem.”
While the panel’s passage of S. 1955 marks the first time that legislation referencing association health plans has cleared a Senate committee, the full House has approved its version of association health plan legislation eight times, acting most recently last July, with passage of H.R. 525, the “Small Business Health Fairness Act.”
President Bush, a strong advocate of association health plan legislation since the time he first entered the Oval Office, on March 10 reiterated his support for this concept.
“AHPs make a lot of sense. I am a strong backer. I believe small businesses ought to be able to pool risk across jurisdictional boundaries, so they can get the same benefits from larger risk pools that big companies get,” Bush said.
The Senate bill is expected to be considered on the Senate floor sometime during the end of April or in early May. Upon passage, it would have to be reconciled with the more widely-supported House bill. Major differences between the two versions could potentially slow down the bill’s progress.
To read the Senate legislation, click here and enter S. 1955 in the box at the center of the page.
For more information, e-mail Michael Strauss at NAHB, or call him at 800-368-5242 x8252.