President urges Congress to pass association health plan legislation

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The greatest number of Americans without health insurance do have jobs, and many of their employers wish they could afford to offer those employees health coverage. Small businesses employ nearly 60 percent of the 43 million uninsured Americans.

As part of his plan to help the uninsured, President Bush called on Congress to pass the Association Health Plan legislation. The AVMA is part of a 150-member coalition that is lobbying for passage of this initiative, which would enable small businesses to purchase affordable employee health coverage.

In his State of the Union address Jan. 20, the president told a Joint Session of Congress, "Small businesses should be able to band together and negotiate for lower insurance rates, so they can cover more workers with health insurance. I urge you to pass association health plans."

Four days later, the president reaffirmed that message in his Saturday morning radio address to the nation, adding, "The House has passed a bill supporting these health plans, and the Senate needs to act."

The president reiterated his support for the bill at a Jan. 28 meeting with coalition representatives and small business owners.

Dr. Ray Stock, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, was among some hundred guests invited to the Old Executive Office Building, where President Bush spoke passionately about his hope that the private sector would soon be able to choose association health care plans.

The president recognized the importance of small businesses in driving the economy. The success of small businesses, Bush said, hinges on the option of purchasing affordable coverage for owners and their employees.

The Association Health Plan Coalition, which has been lobbying for such legislation for several years, considers this strong statement by the president a boon. Four days earlier, the coalition sent letters to key senators, asking for their support. Among them were Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. Judd Gregg, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Senate Republican Uninsured Task Force.

The letters stated: "Our coalition, which consists of the majority of small businesses across America, is united around AHPs as a key part of the solution to the uninsured problem. As you move forward in developing a comprehensive solution to the uninsured crisis, we strongly urge you to include AHPs as part of your plan."

More than 12 million employers and 80 million American workers are represented by the coalition.

The Small Business Health Fairness Act of 2003, S. 545, would allow small businesses to band together through bona fide trade and professional associations to purchase affordable health care coverage. Last June, the House of Representatives adopted the companion bill, H.R. 660, by a hundred-vote, bipartisan margin.

Over the years, mounting state regulations and rising coverage costs have taken their toll, and the small employer group health insurance market is struggling.

Veterinarians who work in or own small businesses have also been hurt. Some relied on the AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust for coverage. Rising costs and burdensome regulations forced the AVMA GHLIT to discontinue its nonveterinary staff plan in 1994. In seven states, the GHLIT is precluded from even offering insurance to AVMA member veterinarians.

According to rough estimates, state regulations that restrict access to health care insurance coverage disenfranchise more than 200,000 members of the veterinary community.

For AHPs to work, federal law needs to be changed to allow them to operate under the same uniform rules that now govern large employer and union health plans. Under the proposed legislation, AHPs would not be regulated by the states, but under the Department of Labor.

Association Health Plans could operate the same way as health plans sponsored by Fortune 500 companies. Therefore, small- and medium-sized businesses—those with 500 employees or fewer—could obtain the same economies of scale, purchasing clout, administrative efficiencies, and plan design flexibility for their workers.

As the coalition looks to the Senate to act favorably on S. 545, veterinarians are encouraged to contact their two U.S. senators for their support. It's important that veterinarians personalize those requests and describe how this legislation affects them and their employees. For contact information on members of Congress, go to the AVMA Governmental Relations Division links at Veterinarians can also write to Sen. Bill Frist, Sen. Judd Gregg, and other key senators. For the list, contact Dr. Ray Stock at the AVMA GRD, (800) 321-1473, Ext. 3204, rstockatavma [dot] org.