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From The CQ Newsroom: Wyden Pushes for Universal Health Care Legislation

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

December 13, 2006 -- Surrounded by leaders from business and labor groups, Sen. Ron Wyden announced an ambitious plan Wednesday for the next Congress to create universal health care coverage.

The Oregon Democrat's proposal aims to provide health insurance to all Americans without increasing the $2.3 trillion spent annually on health care in the United States. Under Wyden's plan, the system of employment-linked health insurance would end.

"Employer-based coverage is melting like a popsicle in the summer sun," said Wyden, referring to the decreasing number of Americans who receive group health coverage through their jobs.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, working-age adults with employer-based health insurance declined from 68 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2004.

Instead of companies helping to buy insurance for their workers, Wyden proposes that private insurers offer coverage directly to consumers. Employers would transfer money they now spend on employee health insurance to workers' wages. State-based "Health Help Agencies" would offer information and guidance, and the proposal would encourage plans with low-cost preventive care and chronic disease management—all with an eye toward reducing future health care costs.

"I hope this will have appeal across the political spectrum," Wyden said.

Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the incoming chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was "glad that Senator Wyden is working on such a critical issue," according to Wyden and Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Kapps.

Wyden's proposal would impose fines on anyone who does not buy health insurance, a tactic used by the universal coverage program in Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts. Wyden said he expected partially subsidized insurance premiums and lower co-payments, combined with the threat of penalties, would encourage near-total participation.

The Oregon senator also emphasized the necessity of support from the business community, saying "it was so important to have Andy Stern and Steve Burd standing side-by-side." Stern is president of the Service Employees Industry Union, a 1.8 million-member labor group; Burd is chief executive of Safeway, one of the nation's largest corporations. Both offered strong support for Wyden's plan.

According to Wyden, Stern and Burd's endorsement was a substantial change from previous efforts to create universal health coverage. "You didn't have that picture in 1994," Wyden said. "There was a picture this morning that did not exist the last time Congress took a run at this."

Stern said that while the Wyden proposal was not the final say on improving health care costs and efficiency, "I think we've seen in Washington the perfect may be the enemy of the good . . . this has a real chance of having a successful conclusion."

Absent from the coalition were representatives from any major physician, insurance, or hospital associations, all of whom would likely play major roles in changes to the health care system. Wyden acknowledged that insurers wouldn't necessarily favor all elements of his proposal.

In November, America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's lobby group, presented its idea for universal coverage. It called for an expansion of government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid to cover the nation's more than 46 million uninsured.

The group's president and chief executive, Karen Ignagni, welcomed Wyden's proposal but said "we'll have some thoughts about the employer-sponsored programs. . . . This is something that needs to be prioritized by the country, and we're going to be a participant."

Several state governments have taken similar steps to offer universal coverage. Beginning in July, every resident of Massachusetts will be required to have health insurance under a program that combines public and private plans, without the expectation of raising taxes.

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