WASHINGTON -- The influential chairmen of the two committees of Congress that oversee health care laws intend to introduce bills calling for substantial reforms in the way health insurance is sold to small businesses.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said yesterday that he hoped the bills that he and Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., will offer in the next few days would halt the decline in health care coverage among small businesses. Mr. Rostenkowski is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Approximately 37 million Americans do not have any health insurance, and about 80 percent of them are full-time employees or their dependents.
The bills -- which may have minor differences -- would make it easier for businesses with up to 50 employees to obtain affordable insurance coverage. Unlike a bill offered by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and other key Democrats, it would not require employers to provide coverage. Mr. Bentsen outlined his plan yesterday morning at a breakfast with health reporters.
Mr. Bentsen said his plan would not "pre-empt any further consideration of . . . major reform later on, but will address some of the problems that have to be addressed now."
A major overhaul of the health care system is needed but will not be achieved soon because it affects millions of people and cuts across numerous powerful interest groups, he said.
So far, the Bush administration has not offered any health care reform plan. Instead, it has criticized a series of plans offered primarily by Democrats.
Mr. Bentsen said the bills would cost an estimated $10 billion over five years -- $7.4 billion to increase the tax deductions for the self-employed and $2.6 billion to expand Medicare benefits to cover preventive health services such as immunizations and cancer screenings. Mr. Bentsen declined to offer any suggestions on how to pay for the plan.
The Bentsen-Rostenkowski proposals would:
* Increase the tax deduction for health insurance costs for self-employed individuals from 25 percent to 100 percent.
* Provide $150 million in grants -- up to $10 million each for 15 states -- to establish small business insurance pools similar to one in Florida that negotiates rates with insurance carriers.
* Prohibit insurance companies from excluding from group coverage employees with existing health conditions or from canceling coverage once claims are submitted. Workers who change jobs and are covered in one plan could not be denied coverage in another plan unless their coverage lapsed for more than three months.