BY CAROLYN LOGUE
Affordable health insurance for small business. This seems to be the battle cry of every candidate for the state legislature or congress; but when elected, the war to actually do something never seems to unfold.
It's a case of all talk and no action - except now we may finally see some action! During the past five years, small-business owners have seen the highest increases in their health-care costs, a problem that virtually everyone agrees is unsustainable.
Currently, twenty-seven million working people in this country are now uninsured; 63 percent of them are either self-employed or work for a small business with less than 100 employees. Back in 2000, the National Federation of Independent Business surveyed its members and found that 47 percent cited health-care costs as a "critical" problem. When NFIB asked again four years later, the number had risen to 65 percent.
Now is the time for Congress to act! Small-business owners have patiently waited for a solution from their respective states, but clearly the uninsured numbers continue to increase. 868,770 of Washington's population are uninsured, and in 2004, the Economic Policy Institute found that more than 121,000 Washington workers and their families had lost employer-provided health insurance since 2000, a drop of 2 percentage points.
The U.S. House of Representatives listened to small business and has acted eight times to pass legislation creating Small-Business Health Plans. SBHPs will level the health-insurance playing field and give participating small employers the same buying power as Fortune 500 companies and unions. SBHPs will do that by allowing small businesses to band together through trade and professional associations to purchase affordable health benefits.
By joining together, small employers will enjoy savings from greater bargaining power, economies of scale and administrative efficiencies. It's taken much longer to educate the Senate about how important this issue is to the vitality of small business.
Time and time again, SBHPs passed the House and met their demise in the Senate committee - until now. We are happy to see a strong bipartisan bill coming to the full Senate for a vote from Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. They both agree that something must be done to help curb costs for America's small business.
"The Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act of 2005," will allow for more uniform federal regulation of health insurance while still providing strong consumer protections. SBHPs under this bill will be able to provide lower cost options through a health plan that operates across state lines. This is critically important because of the burdensome structure of costly benefit mandates at the state level. These provisions will change the environment in which insurers operate, thus creating a more competitive marketplace.
We believe the Enzi-Nelson approach also gives real legs to small-group insurance reform.
For many years, larger insurers have had a strong hold on the marketplace, allowing for rate increases whenever they please. According to the Government Accounting Office, five or fewer insurers control at least three-quarters of the small-group market in most states. This lack of competition is contributing to double-digit rate increases for many small businesses, and a corresponding rise in the number of small-business employees who are uninsured.
NFIB believes this act is the right solution for small business. SBHPs, combined with much-needed competition for the small-group market, will bring more choices for those owners struggling to afford health insurance for their employees. It will be a welcome change for small-business owners.
The Enzi-Nelson bill will soon be voted on by the U.S. Senate. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell will have the opportunity to decide to back small businesses or not. Here's hoping that they will do their part to provide some relief to every small-business owner facing the crisis of rising health-care costs. For more information on SBHPs and the Enzi-Nelson bill, go to www.SBHPsNow.com
Carolyn Logue is the Washington state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.