WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration completed its rollout of a proposal to let small businesses buy into group health insurance plans anywhere in the country on Thursday, and Missouri's two senators were front and center.
President Bush said his plan would help extend coverage to the 41 million Americans who lack health insurance. Of that number, six in 10 work for small businesses or are self-employed, according to Labor Department figures.
"Association health plans allow small business to pool their buying power and spread the risk, putting them on equal footing with large employers and unions," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said Thursday at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Chao, who has spent the past month promoting the plan, joined Republicans as they introduced the idea as legislation in the Senate. Supporters introduced a similar measure Feb. 11 in the House.
The Senate has previously been a burial ground for similar proposals. But this year, supporters have the White House on their side as well as freshman Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who helped pass similar legislation during his tenure in the House.
Also on board is Republican Sen. Kit Bond, who opposed the idea as chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, then embraced it last year.
A former governor, Bond had worried the national health plans would preempt patient protections on the books in dozens of states. Today, he says those worries are dwarfed by the soaring cost of health insurance.
The head of the Small Business Administration, Hector Barreto, said Thursday the price of health care is the fastest-growing cost for small businesses. Barreto grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where his family ran restaurants.
Under the Bush plan, restaurant owners would buy insurance through their trade association, the National Restaurant Association. Restaurant owners are among dozens of groups supporting the measure; backers range from air conditioning contractors to veterinarians to farmers to small newspaper owners.
At a meeting in Washington last week, governors voted to oppose the legislation. Foes argue that under federal -- rather than state -- oversight, insurers offering the small business pools would "cherry-pick" healthier workers, driving up costs for sicker workers.
High costs have not been enough to dampen resistance to national small business plans. The nation's governors and other foes have been stepping up their opposition even as the Bush administration has tried to generate support.
At a meeting in Washington last week, governors voted to oppose the legislation. Missouri Gov. Bob Holden helped draft the policy, and the National Governors Association notified lawmakers on Wednesday of their opposition.
"Exempting entities from state oversight would subject employers and consumers to increased fraud and plan failures," NGA executive director Raymond C. Scheppach wrote in a letter to the chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee.
In the Senate, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry is helping to lead the opposition. Kerry, who is running for president, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee.
And they say Chao's Labor Department doesn't have the resources or expertise to regulate the plans and guard against fraud.
However, the chairwoman of the Senate Small Business Committee pointed out the Department of Labor currently regulates more than 275,000 health insurance plans that cover more than 72 million workers.
"They have an outstanding, excellent track record of more than 30 years of being able to monitor such plans," said the chairwoman, Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Snowe, Talent and Bond introduced the measure with support from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
On the Net:
Senate Small Business Committee: http://sbc.senate.gov/
National Federation of Independent Business: http://www.nfib.org/
Blue Cross Blue Shield: http://www.bcbs.com/
Labor Department: http://www.dol.gov