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Groups, lawmakers devise proposals on health insurance

WASHINGTON—After more than two years of negotiations, a diverse group of business, consumer and health care organizations will announce a plan on Thursday to dramatically reduce the estimated 47 million Americans without health insurance.

The proposal, by a group called the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured, is the latest attempt since Democrats seized control of Congress to address America's health insurance crisis. It's notable because it represents a unified action plan by organizations with varied and often competing interests—and because lawmakers and their staffers were excluded from negotiations.

"We felt that for us to really achieve the consensus breakthrough that we were looking for that we should meet quietly and confidentially and without members of Congress participating," said Ron Pollack, director of Families USA, a liberal patient advocacy group that's part of the coalition. "Now that we've concluded the process, we are very actively talking to members in both houses and on both sides of the aisle" about legislation that adopts their recommendations.

Details of the coalition's plan for covering more children and adults have been closely guarded. But the first phase, improving health coverage for children, reportedly dovetails on efforts to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Known as SCHIP, the state-federal block grant program covers low-income children and is projected to have a shortfall of $930 million this year, which could jeopardize coverage for up to 640,000 kids.

Nationally, 8.3 million children were uninsured in 2005, up from 7.9 million in 2004. Nearly 1 in 5 impoverished children lacked coverage in 2005.

The coalition also is expected to call for increased tax credits to help pay for coverage and for pooling large numbers of uninsured individuals to get cheaper rates.

"We wanted to craft something that appeals to Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and has a balanced public-private approach," said Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Programs. "We think there's a moment in time now that various groups coming together can make a material difference."

An equally disparate group of business, labor and senior advocacy interests also is stepping up lobbying and public awareness efforts for overhauling the nation's costly health care system.

The "Divided We Fail" campaign, unveiled Tuesday, will use the combined 50 million-plus membership of the AARP, the Business Roundtable and the Service Employees International Union to further the call for health care reform.

Not to be outdone, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced bills in the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday that would provide grants for states to experiment with strategies to improve coverage.

The legislation, by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Tom Price, R-Ga., and John Tierney, D-Mass., calls for states to submit proposals to a bipartisan State Health Innovation Commission, which would recommend to Congress what proposals are worth funding.

Progress of grant recipients would be monitored and, after five years, the commission would report whether the projects are meeting the act's goals. The commission would then recommend future congressional action on overall health care changes.

The flurry of health care activity reflects a growing sentiment that now is the time for Congress to address rising health care costs, which have strained family budgets and put U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage internationally.

Several polls have ranked health care as the top domestic policy concern among Americans. U.S. businesses, which railed at President Clinton's 1993 proposal for universal health care, are now leading the call for changes. Among those most involved are small businesses that are struggling to afford employee coverage.

Upset with congressional gridlock in tackling the uninsured problem, Pennsylvania followed the lead of five other states on Wednesday and launched a plan to cover all of its uninsured residents.

Nationally, the number of Americans without health insurance jumped by 1.3 million to 46.6 million in 2005. That's nearly 16 percent of all Americans. It was the fifth straight year that the ranks of the uninsured increased.

Other groups participating in the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured include AARP, the American Medical Association, The American Hospital Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Pfizer pharmaceuticals.

The National Association of Manufacturers, the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO dropped out of the coalition over disagreements about the final proposal. JoAnn Volk, a health care lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said her organization wanted a proposal that called for universal health care.

"This is not a universal health care proposal," Volk said.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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