Hospitals and health plans that have spent the past two years asking the government for more money donned white hats last week as Congress neared an end to its debate on whether to increase Medicare payments.
The Health Insurance Association of America and the American Hospital Association shared a podium in Washington with the healthcare consumers group Families USA in announcing support for a plan to extend healthcare coverage to more uninsured people.
Widely touted as a blended approach endorsed by both a business group and consumers' organization, the plan has earned the moniker "strange bedfellows" because it's supported by both conservative and liberal interest groups.
The plan aims to use tax credits to businesses that pay a larger share of the premiums of low-income workers than the rest of their workers, along with expansions of Medicaid and state children's health insurance programs. The groups estimate it would cover about half of the 42.6 million uninsured people in the U.S.
It would take a federal law to enact the proposal. The groups said they're now trying to bring other interest groups on board to back it before seeking support in Congress. They hope for action sometime in the coming year.
"By coming together now, HIAA, Families USA and the AHA are saying, `we can get started if we seek common ground,' " said Chip Kahn, HIAA president.
"Political gridlock should no longer be an option in dealing with America's uninsurance epidemic," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.
AHA and HIAA officials said last week's press conference was scheduled long ago to coincide with regional conferences on the uninsured, and also was timed to send a message to a president-elect about how best to expand healthcare coverage.
But the timing turned out to be ideal for other reasons for both groups. The lame-duck Congress that reconvenes next month is still pondering legislation that could increase Medicare payments to hospitals, HMOs and other providers by about $32.6 billion during the next five years. Of that total, more than two-thirds will go to hospitals and HMOs.
In addition, the HIAA has been one of the leading groups fighting managed-care reform legislation that still is alive in Congress.
Coming out in favor of a coverage expansion initiative helps both groups sell their message on Medicare funding and HMO practices.
"It's good politics to do it," said healthcare lobbyist Frederick Graefe, with the law firm Baker & Hostetler. "All three of these groups lined up (for the same plan) proves the adage that good policy equals good politics."
In addition, increased insurance coverage helps their members financially. Expanded coverage helps insurance companies sell policies and reduces the burden of uncompensated care at hospitals.
But Richard Pollack, the AHA's executive vice president, said the three groups did not create the event to put a happy face on their more self-interested legislative goals.
"We didn't just cook up a (public relations) event just to get (media) coverage," he said. "We've always viewed expanding coverage and access as a priority issue."
The initiative grew out of a conference in January chiefly sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, along with HIAA, Families USA, the AHA, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses' Association, unions and business groups.
At that time, many of the groups submitted their plans for expanding insurance coverage.
Talks continued between Kahn and Families USA's Ron Pollack to produce the compromise proposal that the two groups released last week. The AHA was quick to endorse it, guaranteeing its presence at the press conference.
The AHA's Richard Pollack said he expects some of the other groups to endorse the product as well.
"The three groups represent a balance of organizations both in terms of the history of where they've come down (on expanding health insurance coverage), and also they're caregivers, consumers and insurers," he said.