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September 06, 2007

California, not Congress, is in driver's seat on health care

The number of Americans without insurance continues to rise, but Congress likely will let states and presidential candidates take the lead on health care reform for now.

The Census Bureau reported Aug. 28 that 47 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2006, up 2.2 million from 2005. Many of these uninsured Americans work for small businesses, so these firms will play a major role in any initiative to cover more people.

The health care issue facing Congress is whether to expand a government program covering children. Both the House and Senate have voted to make more children eligible for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but they disagree on how to pay for it.

President Bush, meanwhile, favors modest expansion of SCHIP and has threatened to veto either bill. He says the legislation would be costly and encourage people to turn to the government instead of private insurers.

Once the SCHIP battle is resolved, Congress will have little time -- and probably little appetite -- for bigger health care reforms.

"What we're hoping for is a very small incremental piece that will get us some relief for a few years," said Amanda Austin, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business.

This could take the form of health care purchasing pools for small businesses -- a longtime priority for NFIB -- or tax breaks to help small employers afford insurance, she said.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, D-Mont., has said that he plans to put together a small business health care package this fall. But, Austin said, "I don't know when he'll have time to do it."

All eyes are on California, not Congress, in the health care reform fight.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to require businesses to offer health insurance if they have 10 or more employees. Otherwise, they would have to pay 4 percent of their payroll into a state fund that would cover uninsured individuals. Doctors and hospitals also would have to pay new fees to help finance coverage for the uninsured. All would be required to have insurance.

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Posted by healthinsurance at September 6, 2007 02:13 PM