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Health care for all proposed
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Thursday, December 14, 2006


WASHINGTON -- A prominent Democratic senator unveiled an ambitious proposal today to provide health insurance for all Americans, while reining in rapid healthcare inflation that threatens benefits for millions of workers and their families.

The plan by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) comes a month after the health insurance industry offered its own comprehensive proposal and signals a growing willingness by politicians to tackle a subject that has been off limits since the mid-1990s collapse of then-President Bill Clinton's sweeping health reform package.

Considered liberal on social issues and moderate on economic policy, Wyden combined elements of reforms that have been proposed by Democrats and Republicans.

His plan would guarantee coverage for all, including nearly 47 million uninsured, a Democratic objective.  But it would also limit employers' exposure to relentless cost increases and encourage workers to shop for cost-effective insurance plans ideas that have Republican support.

"I think the country wants healthcare fixed," Wyden said at a briefing for reporters earlier this week.  "It's possible to get good quality, affordable, universal private health coverage that can never be taken away for the amount of money that is spent today."

Wyden is a member of two Senate panels that are heavily involved in healthcare, the Finance and Budget committees.

Americans spend more than $2 trillion a year on healthcare, more on a per-person basis than any other country.  But the returns on that investment are uneven, with many insured patients getting less than optimal care and millions of workers unable to afford health coverage, which costs about $12,000 to $13,000 a year for a family plan.

Employers have traditionally provided coverage for workers and their families.  Although most workers are still insured through their jobs, corporate leaders are increasingly questioning whether the system can be sustained in an era of global competition.

Wyden's plan would require employers to continue contributing toward the cost of health coverage, but it would get them out of the business of directly providing insurance and limit their exposure to double-digit annual inflation.

In the first two years of the plan, employers who now provide coverage would be required to directly pay workers what they were spending on insurance.  Thereafter, most companies would pay the government a healthcare contribution that resembles a payroll tax.

Using the money from their employer, individuals would be required to purchase a private insurance policy through a purchasing pool in their state.  Benefits would be keyed to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Plan available to federal workers.  Workers would not have to pay higher income taxes because of the employer contribution.

The uninsured would also have to buy coverage, but premiums for the poor would be fully subsidized by the government.  Middle-class families with incomes up to $80,000 for a family of four would be eligible for help on a sliding scale.

Premiums from individuals and contributions from employers would be collected by the government through the tax system and distributed to insurers.  Once enrolled, individuals would be covered until retirement.  Seniors in the Medicare program would not have to make any changes.

An economic analysis of the plan by the Lewin Group consulting firm found it could be paid for with a little less than what the nation now spends on healthcare.  In theory, the plan would hold down healthcare inflation because individuals would have to pay more out of their own pockets for plans with lavish benefits.

Wyden's proposal spelled out in a 166-page bill that he plans to introduce soon is complex and such changes are not likely to be easily enacted.  Most experts believe major healthcare reform will only be possible if a presidential candidate is elected with a mandate to tackle the problem.  Nonetheless, Wyden won compliments for taking on a tough issue.

"We are very supportive of the goals Sen. Wyden has established," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group that will play a key role on health policy in the Democratic-led Congress.  But he called the plan "a first step" and "a work in progress."

At the Committee for Economic Development, an organization of CEOs from major companies, senior economist Joseph Minarik said Wyden's plan sounds like "a first or second cousin" to ideas the organization is considering in formulating its own proposal that will be announced next year.

"The story overall is that people are beginning to come to the conclusion that the employer-based health insurance system is very vulnerable," Minarik said.

ricardo.alonso-zaldivar@latimes.com

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-ex-healthcare13dec13,0,6148068.story?coll=la-home-nation