Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) plans to introduce new health care legislation that would be cosponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York).
Few details are available from aides to Kennedy and Clinton, who say only that the plan would cut medical costs and provide health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans.
Through a series of proposals, or incremental steps, Kennedy hopes to put national health care “back on the table,” nearly 10 years after former President Bill Clinton failed to establish a single-payer health care system for all Americans. The Kennedy-Clinton team is making a bid to reignite the debate over universal health care coverage.
One of the first bills Kennedy-Clinton plan to introduce would require businesses with more than 100 employees to offer their workers health insurance. Employers would be required to pay at least 70 percent of premiums and would be required to provide benefits at least equivalent to those offered through the “standard option” plan of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), which is administered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Employers would be required to pay the same share of the premium the U.S. government contributes to its employees’ health insurance.
Kennedy touched on the employer-mandate legislation in an April 28 speech to a forum on health care and bioterrorism at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. The speech addressed a wide range of health care issues and concerns, including the rising cost of premiums, cutbacks in Medicaid because of state budget shortfalls, high administrative costs of processing health care transactions, and deficiencies in medical defenses against bioterrorism.
According to Kennedy’s office, the mandate legislation is necessary because uninsured employees working for companies with 100 or more workers account for one-third of all U.S. workers who lack health coverage.
Republicans have waved off similar proposals, and the legislation is not expected to gain much momentum in the Senate, the Boston Globe reported.
Still, some health experts say the bill would likely gain more support than the Clinton administration’s earlier proposals because it would focus on larger businesses and would not overly burden small companies. “By starting at 100 workers and above, you disarm most of the fierce opposition,” said Alan Sager, professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “You have many smaller businesses—retail, restaurants, small manufacturing firms, small construction—where proprietors felt they would be financially crippled.”
Here We Go Again
“We need to begin to lay the groundwork this year for a new effort to enact a program of universal coverage,” Kennedy said in his speech. “It is time to put this cause at the top of the national agenda once again.”
The Kennedy-Clinton bill may face stiff opposition from a Republican-controlled White House and U.S. House of Representatives. Nevertheless, said Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute and a close observer of the political health care scene, “Republicans need to wake up and recall how the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, later called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), slipped right through their fingers, because no one took it seriously.”
About 39 million Americans—roughly one in six—do not have health insurance. In Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts there are about 400,000 uninsured people, and about two-thirds of those are working adults, said Marcia Hams, deputy director of Health Care For All, a statewide single-payer advocacy group.
Kennedy’s office pointed to recent projections that indicate a looming crisis. During the recession many people lost health insurance along with their jobs. Health insurance premiums nationally rose 11 percent last year and are projected to increase 13 percent next year. As many as 6 million people could lose coverage in 2001 and this year, according to one report.
Many uninsured or underinsured workers have access to insurance through their employers but can’t afford their share of the premiums, experts say. A proposal pending in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, aimed at addressing the state’s current budget crisis, would lead to the elimination of coverage for 50,000 people, Hams said.
“We’re having an expanding crisis for people that are uninsured,” Hams warned. “This is not a crisis we can just solve in-state.” She added her group would support the Kennedy legislation.