BY BOB MIODONSKI
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
WASHINGTON — Legislation that would permit the formation of Small Business Health Plans took a step forward March 15 when a Senate committee approved the measure. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill in early May.
Formerly known as Association Health Plans legislation, the Small Business Health Plans bill would allow trade groups such as the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association to offer health-care coverage to its members. Under the legislation, plumb-ing-and-HVAC contracting firms would be able to provide employees coverage that would be equivalent to that offered by large corporations and labor unions.
PHCC-NA listed health-care reform as its top legislative priority earlier this year (January, pg. 64). It is part of a coalition of more than 200 small-business associations that supports this legislation.
"It's a fairness issue for small and medium-sized businesses," Lake Coulson, PHCC-NA's vice president/government affairs, told contractors March 15. "You have to compete for people with big corporations. They can offer better health insurance benefits."
PHCC members were in Washington to attend the association's 10th annual Legislative Day, which was March 16 when contractors visited their legislators' offices. Coulson made his remarks March 15 during a pre-Legislative Day briefing.
The action by the Senate that day on bill S.1955 was the first ever taken by that body in the 11 years that association health plans have been an issue on Capitol Hill, Coulson said. A key difference in the Senate version is that associations must offer fully insured health plans underwritten by an insurance company. A House version of the bill would allow a self-funding option for the plans, such as the self-insurance policies offered by large corporations.
Another difference between the Senate and House versions is that the Senate bill would maintain an over-sight role for state insurance departments and commissions in regulating plans offered by associations. Large corporations are exempted from this oversight, Coulson said.
"State-mandated benefits laws have really driven costs up," he said. "Small businesses pay 17% more than large corporations do."
The Senate bill would partially preempt the state mandates, Coulson said. Under the legislation, associations would have to offer their members a range of health-care benefits equivalent to those offered to public employees in one of the five largest states in the country.
"This is a pretty good deal," Coulson told PHCC members. "It's not all that large corporations can offer, but it's close."
Chief opponents of the legislation are large insurance companies that want to maintain the status quo, he said, and special-interest groups that have lobbied state insurance departments to mandate coverage for certain medical conditions.
U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., told PHCC members March 16 that she was optimistic that if the Senate passes the SBHP legislation, the House of Representatives would pass it too because it is supported by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. She said a great appeal of SBHPs is that they will allow industries such as construction to develop a plan that is specific to their needs.
"As a small business owner myself, I couldn't afford to pay for health insurance for my employees; 60% of people who work for small businesses are uninsured," said Kelly, who owned a building rehab business with her husband, a building contractor. "Small businesses create seven out of 10 new jobs each year."
Kelly and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, RN.C., spoke at a PHCC members-only breakfast where Burr cautioned that passage of SBHP legislation could be a long process. Although he said that such plans could help ease some health issues, Burr described the current political atmosphere in Washington as divisive, which has caused an inability to consider big issues. He noted that reforms in Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security also need to be addressed in the health-care debate.
Kelly brought health into her remarks on tort reform as well. She encouraged PHCC contractors to ask for health studies by the Centers for Dis-ease Control related to mold exposure so that more scientific information is available to fight frivolous lawsuits.
"We must have tort reform," she said. "Lawsuits usually don't solve things — they just put money in lawyers' pockets."
In addition, Kelly talked about the need for tax relief for small businesses, such as permanent repeal of the estate tax. She noted that no bill to protect p-h-c contractors from unfair competition from public utilities is being considered by this session of Congress.
Before heading to Capitol Hill appointments to visit the offices of their elected representatives, the 100 PHCC members attending Legislative Day were told they had the distinction that day of being the only group that would be speaking on behalf of the entire industry. The members were challenged to make the most of their day and not be timid in voicing concerns.
"Our members essentially were representing the 80,000-plus p-h-c contractors in the United States, and they took this role very seriously," PHCC President Jim Stack said.
"I think it was very rewarding for them to know they were part of a very important process in American government."