Health-care reform: Groups support Senate bill, but hope it gets better

Consumer Reports News: December 22, 2009 04:37 PM

"You’re the reason we’ve come so far," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), told advocacy groups supporting reform at a press conference in the capitol today. DeAnn Friedholm, director of Consumers Union’s healthcare reform campaign, was there representing CU, which has endorsed the House bill and supports passage of the Senate bill. “You never let us forget this fight isn’t about politics, it isn’t about partisanship,  it’s about people--real people,” said Reid.

Also joining Senator Reid, were Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and leaders and activists from more than 15 other groups, including Doctors for America, Small Business Majority, U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, Families USA, National Puerto Rican Coalition, Community Catalyst, Japanese Americans Citizen League, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, AARP, American Heart Association, National Jewish Democratic Council and others. Yesterday the American Medical Association endorsed the Senate bill.

But while all of these groups support passage of the Senate bill, many are also working for improvements during the conference committee, the process that combines the House and Senate versions. “There’s a lot to like about the Senate bill,” said Friedholm. “But there are some things that are better in the House bill. If we can convince the conferees to combine the best elements of the House bill with the best of the Senate bill we will have health reform that helps consumers access more affordable, higher quality and safer care.”

Dick Woodruff, senior director of federal relations for American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, was also there. I caught up with him right afterward.
His organization supports the Senate bill. “It’s a good bill to ensure that millions of cancer patients have access to health insurance coverage that’s affordable,” he said naming off some of the key provisions for people fighting cancer, such as eliminating preexisting conditions denials; capping annual limits of benefits and ending lifetime limits; and very strong prevention measures, including coverage for cancer screenings.

He also says there are some things the Cancer Action Network is still working to make better. “We’d like to see a stronger subsidy so that lower-income American families have an easier time buying insurance,” said Woodruff. The House bill generally has larger subsidies for low-income families. But he said some new provisions in the Senate bill makes some subsidy monies available for patients who need to take advantage of the high-risk pool between now and when the insurance exchanges are set up and preexisting conditions clauses are eliminated in 2014. And even the Senate bill has a six-month waiting period for inclusion in the subsidized risk pool, says Woodruff. “Surely there is no reason to have a waiting period if somebody has cancer.”

Another issue for Woodruff is the Senate bill’s “wellness” provisions that could hit consumers with a premium surcharge of as much as 50 percent if they don’t meet certain targets, such as a specific Body Mass Index (BMI). Woodruff says that’s another area where he prefers the House language, and that his organization will be working on all of these points with the conference committee negotiators.

I also spoke with Terry Gardiner, national policy director for the Small Business Majority. He said he is especially supportive of the bill now because the most recent changes made “some very significant forward progress for small businesses.” The revised bill would expand tax credits to help small businesses pay for health coverage, and make them available to more firms. Most importantly, Gardiner says, it starts the credits a year earlier, in 2010 rather than 2011. “It’s going to get small businesses relief right now, to help insure their employees in a pretty tough recession,” he said.

He also says he’s happy to see the new cost containment provisions, such as those included in the freshman package. “That’s the bottom line when you talk to small businesses: it’s the cost,” Gardiner said. “This bill goes further then any version we’ve seen yet” at tackling runaway costs.

But he too sees some work that needs to be done before Congress sends a unified bill to the president’s desk. “The House creates a national exchange which we think is very important because it will create lower costs and more choices,” says Gardiner. The Senate’s version has states set up the exchanges. “Hopefully each side will see the wisdom of the other body.”

—Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

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