No Longer Relying On All Or Nothing: Lawmakers Carve Out Specific Health Reforms Aimed At Curbing The Worst Abuses

Democrats are expressing support for President Obama’s new proposal to jumpstart healthcare reform ahead of this week’s White House meeting with the GOP, but some prominent lawmakers appear to no longer be betting all their hopes that comprehensive legislation will be enacted.

They are either talking up specific provisions of reform that could be approved individually, or in at least one case, introducing new legislation aimed at curbing the worst.

Obama will meet this week in Washington with Republicans in a televised summit to hash out the potential for moving forward with comprehensive healthcare reform, which has been stalled since Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won a Jan. 19 special election that handed Senate Republicans a 41st seat capable to sustaining a filibuster of a final reform bill.

“I am pleased the President remains committed to passing a comprehensive health insurance reform bill that will give millions more Americans access to health insurance, while improving quality and keeping costs down for everyone,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

In a statement, Leahy goes on to praise several specific aspects of Obama’s plan before highlighting separate legislation to reverse a key protection the health insurance industry currently enjoys.

“Last year I introduced legislation to repeal the federal antitrust exemption enjoyed by the health insurance industry. Surely we can all agree that increasing competition can help reduce costs to consumers,” Leahy says. “The House is expected to vote on a similar repeal later this week, and I am committed to working with Senator [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] to ensure that it is signed into law.”

Repeal of the antitrust exemption would apply the same competition laws that apply to virtually every other company doing business in the United States, Leahy notes.

“The healthcare industry is the subject of a great deal of debate.  There are many proposals to bring competition to health insurance providers.  While we are debating these solutions, we should not lose sight of the fact that the health insurance industry currently does not have to play by the same, good-competition rules as other industries,” he says in a statement issued last year.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein would go even further, in light of the recent news that a major insurer in her home state of California wants to sock its customers with rate increases of nearly 40 percent.

Feinstein introduced legislation that would prevent insurance companies from enacting such huge health premium rate increases.

The legislation would create a national Medical Insurance Rate Authority to prevent such increases. Feinstein’s announcement follows news that Anthem Blue Cross would hike premiums for certain policyholders in California by up to 39 percent.

“This is unconscionable. It places a huge burden on people who are already struggling in these tough economic times, including the estimated 700,000 Anthem Blue Cross policyholders in California,” Feinstein says.

Additionally, a report published Thursday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that health insurance companies have requested dramatic premium hike increases over the past year — for instance, by up to 56 percent in Michigan, 24 percent in Connecticut and 23 percent in Maine — and will likely continue to do so in the future.

Feinstein says that her legislation would empower the secretary of Health and Human Services to review premium cost increases in states where the Insurance Commissioner does not have the authority, or capability, to conduct such reviews.

Specifically, it would:

  • Require companies to justify unreasonable premium increases, using a process to be established by the HHS secretary.
  • Give the secretary authority to deny or modify health insurance rate increases that are found to be unjustified.
  • Require the secretary to determine whether states have the capability to conduct rate reviews. To assist the secretary, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners will submit a report that examines current state authority, capabilities, and recent rate review actions.
  • Establish a Medical Insurance Rate Authority to advise the secretary. It will have seven members — two consumer representatives, one insurance industry representative, one physician, and three additional experts.
  • At least 25 states give their insurance commissioners some type of authority to review or regulate premium hikes and other charges, including deductibles and co-payments, Feinstein notes. California is not one of those states.

    The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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