WASHINGTON – In an effort to help small-business owners provide better health insurance for their employees,President George W. Bush pushed for “association health plans” Wednesday in a speech to the Associated Builders and Contractors conference.
The plans would allow similar small businesses to unify across state lines and sell health insurance through their trade associations to small businesses.
In a speech that focused on Social Security reform,the economy,foreign relations and energy plans,Bush won applause from several hundred contractors when he said AHPs could help small businesses.
“It means that,if you’re a small business in Texas and you’re a small business in New Jersey,that you can be in the same risk pool if you share the same type of industry,” Bush said. “Obviously,the more people in the pool,the more you spread risk,the lower the cost. … Congress ought to allow small businesses to join together so they can buy insurance at the same discount that big businesses get to do,for the sake of health care for small businesses and their employees.
The contractors group represents 23,000 non-union construction firms.
Some at the conference said they support AHPs,pointing out that small businesses have a harder time providing their employees with affordable health insurance.
“I am certainly in favor of AHPs,” said Brian P. Nester,president of Nester Bros. Inc. Masonry Contractors in Pennsburg,Pa. (Nester not related to the author.)
A lack of insurance providers and competitive insurance plans in southeastern Pennsylvania area are reasons Nester said he supports AHPs.
Nester said he thought there used to be better plans for small businesses,but they seem to have “faded away.”
Almost 35 percent of workers in firms with fewer than 10 employees do not have health coverage,and small firms with low-wage workers are 50 percent less likely to offer health insurance than small firms with high-wage workers,according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Web site.
Bush also urged Congress to pass legislation to limit medical liability lawsuits.
AHP legislation is making its way through Congress. House and Senate versions of the Small Business Health Fairness Act,H.R. 525,were introduced in February.
There is some opposition to the legislation,as it would exempt AHPs from state-level regulation. States regulate nearly all insurance.
The AFL-CIO strongly opposes the legislation,arguing that it would not make insurance more affordable,said JoAnn Volk,a legislative representative with the group.
The union group is also concerned with the lack of state consumer protection if AHPs are enacted.
“If you get in,there are no restrictions as to how often they would raise rates,” Volk said.
She cited a similar plan that originated in the 1980s,the Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements,that had problems with fraud and waste.
This legislation is likely to exclude older workers and limit access to mammograms,a medical test that many states require insurance companies to pay for,Volk said.
Instead,insurance should be subsidized to allow more people access to care,Volk said.
In its newsletter,the American Nurses Association said state regulations that require insurance providers allow patients direct access to emergency care and the right to appeal to an independent panel when an insurer denies coverage for care could be endangered.
ANA opposes the AHP legislation,claiming it would increase insurance premiums. More than 1,300 groups oppose the legislation,according to the newsletter.
In 2004,U.S. health insurance premiums rose 11.2 percent,according to a survey released in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Premiums reached an average of $9,950,or $829 a month,for families and $3,695 a month for single coverage,according to the survey.