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Bush Backs Small-Business Health Legislation

MARCH 10, 2006 -- President Bush reiterated his support Friday for legislation to make it easier for small businesses to band together and purchase health insurance at a lower price.

At a speech before the National Newspaper Association, Bush said he hoped the legislation would be approved in the Senate this year. The House already passed its version of the legislation (HR 525)—which would exempt association health plans from state laws that mandate insurance coverage for specific treatments and procedures—last July.

The idea "makes a lot of sense," Bush said. "I believe small businesses ought to be able to pool risk across jurisdictional boundaries so they can get the same benefits from larger risk pools that big companies get."

Business groups have said that it is currently too difficult to form such groups because complying with myriad state laws is too cumbersome.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee began a markup Wednesday of small business health plan legislation by Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and plans to complete it March 15.

Enzi's bill (S 1955) would allow small businesses to join together and offer coverage that does not comply with state mandates if they give another choice that mirrors the benefits included in the state government employee health plans in one of the five most populous states—California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois.

His bill also extends that flexibility to plans not specifically targeted to small business groups.

The breadth of his proposal drew strong opposition from Democrats, who had prepared 68 amendments to his legislation.

But Enzi and Bush both remained hopeful that it could pass this year.

"I think we got a pretty good chance this year, I hope so," Bush said. I know we got it out of the House; we got to get it out of the Senate."

The ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP committee, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, however, renewed his criticism following the president's speech.

"In the guise of helping small businesses afford health insurance for their workers, the Republican plan is a blank check for the insurance industry and a bad deal for patients, resulting in higher premiums and lower benefits," he said.

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