Lawmakers Debate Ways to Ease Pain of Health-Care Costs

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Measures aimed at lowering the cost of employee health care for small businesses have been introduced in the U.S. Senate. A Republican version would allow employers to form association health plans, while a Democratic plan would create a national pool with public financing.

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The bills are working their way through the Senate as some public opinion polls show that health care costs are at the top of the list of concerns of small business owners. A survey by PNC Financial of Washington, D.C.-area small business owners showed that a majority rated health-care costs as a higher priority for congressional reform than the deficit, energy-dependence, tax reform or immigration policy, according to the Washington Business Journal. A third said employee health care costs impacts raises and hiring.

One Republican approach to those concerns is a bill sponsored by Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, who calls for measures to allow small businesses to join association health plans to buy less regulated coverage, according to Congressional Quarterly HealthBeat. Enzi's bill has the approval of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and is in hearings before the Finance Committee.

The competing bill, sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, would create a national health care pool modeled after the system used to insure federal employees, according to Arkansas News Bureau. The program would cost the government $50 billion over 10 years, Lincoln said.

The program "will allow employers to reap the benefit of group purchasing power and streamline administrative costs, as well as access more plan choices," Lincoln said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

The program she is sponsoring would be open to all employers with up to 100 workers, including the self-employed. Employers who agree to pay at least 60 percent of each employee's health-insurance premium would get a 25 percent tax credit.

Yet another proposal would involve savings incentives. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), has a bill before the Finance Committee that would allow workers to pay for health-insurance premiums using a Health Savings Account, a tax-free savings plan that allows taxpayers to deposit money to pay for medical expenses.

"What it does is it turns patients into shoppers," DeMint told the committee.

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