Americans want Small Business Health Plans (SBHP), and there are plenty of people in the Senate and the small business community who will make sure they get them, according to supporters of SBHP legislation.
Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), unveiled a petition April 26 that had been circulated by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and signed by nearly 450,000 small business owners across the U.S.
The petition called on the Senate to pass the Enzi-sponsored SHBP bill that the HELP Committee approved by a party-line vote in March. The House of Representatives passed its own version of the bill last July, the eighth time it has done so, but an SBHP bill to date has never even reached the full Senate.
Joining Sen. Enzi at the April 26 press conference were two HELP Committee colleagues-Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.-and Todd Stottlemyer, president and CEO of the NFIB.
``For the past 20 years, small business owners have told us that obtaining affordable health insurance is their most important single issue,'' Mr. Stottlemyer said.
Some 17 million Americans who are either self-employed or employed in companies of 100 workers or fewer have no health insurance coverage at all, according to Mr. Stottlemyer. ``They are not asking for special favors but simple fairness, and it's up to the Senate to do its duty by them.''
SBHPs-also known as Association Health Plans, or AHPs-would allow small businesses through their professional or business associations to negotiate across state lines for low-cost health care plans. Currently, only large corporations may do so.
To answer criticisms that SBHPs are intrinsically unfair in their coverage, Sen. Enzi said, the bill stipulates that small business owners must negotiate the same health insurance coverage for themselves and their families as for their employees. Also, state insurance commissioners would have oversight over the operations of all SBHPs.
Virtually every small business association-including every major tire and automotive aftermarket retail trade association-sees passage of SBHP legislation as a virtual necessity.
On April 25, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) released the results of a member survey on health insurance. Of the SEMA members who responded, 31 percent said they offered no health insurance to their employees, and of that group two-thirds said they had been forced to stop offering health insurance over the last 10 years because of spiraling costs.
Sen. Enzi noted the results of a recent National Association of Realtors survey on SBHPs. After reading descriptions of the pros and cons of SBHP legislation, 89 percent of respondents from the general public said they favored the bill.
``Anything that has that amount of support generally flies right through (the Senate),'' he said.
Despite this support, however, the Enzi bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Some state legislators and insurance commissioners vehemently oppose the bill, as do many health and consumer advocacy groups.
According to opponents, SBHP legislation would undermine state insurance regulations that ensure severely or chronically ill people can obtain coverage. It also would allow insurers to eliminate from insurance policies such vital health services as cancer screenings, maternity care, diabetes supplies and mental health care, they said.
``This bill is part and parcel of a broader plan to dismantle health care protections in this country,'' said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, in a press release. The bill's supporters, however, argue that basic health care coverage is better than none at all.
Sen. Enzi said he hoped the bill could come to the Senate floor before Memorial Day, perhaps as early as the week of May 1. The House and Senate bills have significant differences, including the House provision allowing small businesses to self-insure, but Sen. Enzi said he wasn't overly concerned about those differences at the moment.
``Our next goal is to get the bill through the Senate,'' he said. ``As we do that, we will start pre-conference talks with the House.''