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Senate debates small-business health insurance

Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was among senators speaking out at a rally urging Congress to reject the Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act on Captiol Hill May 9, 2006.

KAI RYSSDAL: You've heard the statistic, I'll bet. Something like 15% of the people in this country have no health insurance. Presidents have tried to fix the problem. Without much luck. Now Congress is going to give it a shot. One proposal made its way to the Senate floor today. From the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer has the story.


HELEN PALMER: About 46 million Americans are without health insurance. At least half of them work — but their employers can't afford to offer coverage. Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi's bill would let small businesses band together to negotiate better deals, says analyst Beth Fuchs of Health Policy Alternatives.
BETH FUCHS: Mr Enzi would argue that by pooling together smaller employers you get the ability to get more negotiating leverage with health insurers.

Fuchs says the bill would also cut costs by streamlining state regulations. But that proposal upsets many consumer advocates. They say this bill means employers need not cover, say, cancer screening or well-baby visits. David Stone handles government relations for the seniors group AARP. He see dire consequences for his members.

DAVID STONE: This bill allows a much greater degree of discrimination on the part of insurers for those employees that might be older.

Stone says insurance risk should be pooled and spread — but the Enzi bill would allow insurers to cherry-pick, with low rates only for the young and healthy. But small-business interests support the bill. AMANDA AUSTEN: This is not the silver bullet but we do feel like it will provide some more levels of coverage.Amanda Austen speaks for the 600,000 members of the National Federation of Independent Business. She says the Enzi bill will probably only cover 1 to 3 million more uninsured workers — but it's a start.

AUSTEN: A lot of people are currently uninsured and we want them to have some coverage because we all agree that some coverage is bettter than no coverage.

Despite its boosters, Congress watchers say they're pessimistic about the bill's future.They say partisan wrangling is likely to derail it — for this session at least.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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