If the incoming Obama administration spent last week fueling up the healthcare reform train, then health plan lobby groups were trying to punch their tickets to ensure a seat onboard.
Americas Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association both endorsed a proposal last week to guarantee coverage to all individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions, but only if the guarantee is coupled with a mandate on individuals to maintain health insurance.
The proposal comes as President-elect Barack Obama named former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as his nominee to run HHS, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) named three healthcare-reform work groups within the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee that Kennedy chairs (See story, p. 8).
AHIP denied that the proposal was a response to the shift of the White House to Democratic control and the partys strengthened majorities in Congress. Thats not what drove us to do this, AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said. We decided to put forth this proposal because we recognize that the current healthcare system is not working for everyone. Reform is needed.
The lobby group has been working on reform proposals for more than two years, Zirkelbach said, highlighted by a series of public meetings across the country earlier this year dubbed a nationwide listening tour by AHIP. Coverage for pre-existing conditions was favored by many of the participants in those meetings, he said.
No one should fall through the cracks of our healthcare system, said Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of AHIP, in a news release. Universal coverage is within reach and can be achieved by building on the current system.
The individual mandate has to be the other side of the coin because experience shows that states that require so-called guaranteed issue without the mandate see premiums rise and insurers flee the state, Zirkelbach said.
The insurers changed stance is welcomed by the American Hospital Association, said Molly Collins Offner, the AHAs director for policy development. They are positioning themselves, clearly, for the reform dialogue, Offner said. Its a responsible position for them to take, and it is good leadership is how we would interpret that.
The AHA, however, believes that while the significant shift in the insurers position is a positive step, coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions could occur without the individual mandate.
Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group based in Santa Monica, Calif., labeled the connection between guaranteed issue and an individual mandate self-serving in a news release. The group contended that polls show that the individual mandate has proven unpopular in Massachusetts, where the mandate was part of a broader healthcare reform, and that, on a national scale, it would amount to making the federal government the collection agency for health plans.
The AHAs Offner said last weeks activity was a sign that healthcare reform wont be overshadowed by the economy, as some healthcare providers feared after the election (Nov. 10, p. 6). I think its so tied to the economic picture, Offner said. The threat of losing their job or having lost their job, that certainly has brought to mind the tie between jobs and health coverage.