The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) has passed its own version of Association Health Plan (AHP) legislation, the first time any Senate panel has done so.
However, the legislation's automotive aftermarket and small business supporters are concerned about the bill's ultimate fate when it reaches the Senate floor, because it passed narrowly, 11-9 along party lines, and several Democratic amendments were defeated by equally narrow votes.
``I think it's going to be a very ugly fight,'' said Paul Fiore, director of government and business relations for the Tire Industry Association (TIA). ``The opposition to this bill still has the idea it will harm consumers in some way.''
TIA and most other aftermarket associations, however, have long championed AHP legislation as a way to allow their members to offer their employees health insurance coverage without breaking the bank. The AHP concept has been a priority item for the past several years in the aftermarket's lobbying efforts.
Sponsored by HELP Committee Chairman Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., the Senate bill would allow small businesses through their professional associations to negotiate across state lines with insurance carriers to obtain low-cost health insurance premiums. Large corporations have for years been able to do the same.
The Enzi bill differs from the House measure passed last July in that the House bill allows small businesses to self-insure. Mr. Fiore said TIA supports self-insurance but is ready to accept either option.
The House legislation was the eighth AHP bill to be approved by that body since 1995. However, the Senate traditionally has listened more than the House to the concerns of trial lawyers and consumer groups, which fear that AHP legislation would abrogate current state controls on health care coverage for employees. According to the consumer group Public Citizen, AHP legislation would allow businesses to offer health care only to younger, healthier employees, leaving other workers to fend for themselves.
Several Democratic amendments to the Enzi bill were defeated by the same narrow margins by which the bill itself was passed.
Among others, these included an amendment to uphold state insurance laws requiring health plans to provide mammographies and other gynecological and obstetric services; another to require coverage of immunization and other health services for babies; and one requiring coverage for screening and treatment of obesity, depression, and alcohol and tobacco addiction.
Mr. Fiore said he expects that TIA members and other small businesses would be conscientious in the health plans they offered their employees under AHPs. ``That's where we're coming from,'' he said. ``I just don't know if we'll get (the chance to offer AHPs).''
No date has been set for the Enzi bill to go to the full Senate.