Debate Heats Up Over Small Business Health Plans

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The debate over Small Business Health Plans (SBHP) legislation is heating up this week as the bill's proponents seek a quick vote and opponents look to block the bill, as reported by Reuters.

The wrangling kicked off in earnest on Tuesday, when the Senate voted 96 - 2 on a motion to proceed with formal consideration of Sen. Michael Enzi's bill, The Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act, S. 1955. The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), would allow business and trade associations to pool their members to offer group health coverage through SBHPs. At press time the Washington Times was reporting that Enzi said he would push for a cloture motion to halt debate and force a final vote as early as today (May 11).

A number of prominent organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the American Diabetes Association, recently launched campaigns in opposition to the bill. The groups contend that Enzi's bill could lead to low-end insurance plans that do not cover benefits that are currently mandated in many states, such as cancer screenings, mammography, pap smears, and colonoscopies.

However, last week, ABA COO Oren Teicher stressed that there are many thousands of small business owners and employees who currently cannot afford any health insurance, and who have no access to any of those state-mandated benefits. "While we certainly respect the position of those groups who oppose Enzi's bill," Teicher said, "the fact is, small businesses have very little buying power and few affordable options when it comes to health coverage. Because it affects everyone, healthcare reform by its nature can be a controversial topic -- and no health care bill, including S. 1955, is without flaws. However, we believe Small Business Health Plans represent an important first step to providing our members with access to affordable healthcare."

ABA has been encouraging booksellers to contact their members of the Senate to urge them to support S. 1955, via fax to their senators' Washington, D.C., offices and a hard copy of the letter of support on their store's letterhead to the senators' state offices. (Addresses can be found on the Senate website.) ABA has also created a sample letter that booksellers can customize and send to their senators.

A report prepared by Mercer Oliver Wyman, Inc., a financial services strategy consulting firm, for the National Small Business Association, found that S. 1955 would reduce health insurance costs for small businesses by 12 percent and would reduce the number of uninsured in working families by eight percent.

With the bill on the floor, the battle line has been drawn down party lines, with mostly Democrats threatening to vote against Enzi's cloture motion. Republican and Democratic leaders are trying to come to an agreement on the bill, CQ Today reported.

In an effort to bring the legislation to a successful vote, Enzi has sought to pacify the bill's critics by making changes to provisions "on how insurance companies set premiums by reducing the variance allowed between the highest and lowest rates charged for different patients," CQ Today noted. Additionally, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) offered an amendment to S. 1955 that would require health plans to keep coverage for conditions that at least 26 states require insurers to provide, according to CQ Today. Enzi needs 60 votes for the cloture motion to pass, which is unlikely, the article noted.

While similar legislation has passed the U.S. House of Representatives numerous times, Small Business Health Plans legislation has never come up for a vote in the Senate.

ABA is asking any booksellers who contact their senators regarding SBHP to please notify ABA's David Grogan via e-mail to tally how many booksellers have written to support S. 1955. --David Grogan