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Senate Democrats Roll Out 'Fixes' to Health Care Law

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

March 27, 2014 -- Five Senate Democrats and Maine independent Angus King announced recently that they are proposing a series of nine bills—some of which have already been introduced—that would make changes to the 2010 health care law.

The measures includes proposals that would create a new high-deductible coverage option known as a copper plan in the health insurance exchanges, expand the law's small business tax credit and narrow the requirement for businesses to offer coverage or pay a penalty to employers with 100 or more workers, rather than the 50-employee threshold under current law.

Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia joined King in announcing the legislation. Begich, Landrieu, and Warner all are up for re-election this year.

According to a Senate Democratic aide, the proposals that have not already been introduced will be dropped soon and Senate leadership is aware of the proposals.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said earlier this year that he would consider allowing votes on Democratic bills to make fixes to the overhaul, but a spokesman for the Nevada Democrat did not immediately return a request for comment.

Although King is not currently listed as cosponsor of every measure, all six senators laid out the proposals in opinion piece published in Politico. They also released statements emphasizing that the 2010 overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) is imperfect, with many expressing hope that lawmakers would work together to move forward with adjustments.

"I have long said there are some good pieces of the health care reform law and some pieces that need to be fixed," Heitkamp said. "Today, we're announcing needed fixes to improve the parts of the law that could work better for families and businesses across North Dakota–as I pledged to do since before joining the Senate. It only makes sense that we continue to improve on the law so it can help more families access affordable, quality health care."

According to a list of the proposals released by the senators, one bill (S 1729) that has already been introduced would add a copper plan to the platinum, gold, silver and bronze options already available on the insurance exchanges. Those categories are based on the percentage of the cost that the plan pays, and the copper plan would create a new lower-cost option with a high deductible that still meets the benefits requirements in the law.

The summary said the new plan "would give consumers more control over their own coverage, spur competition, and, most importantly, increase affordability."

The series also includes legislation (S 2069) that would make the law's small business tax credit available for a longer time frame and accessible to businesses with fewer than 50 employees rather that the current 25-employee threshold, the release says.

Another measure (S 1333) would restore startup funding for the non-profit health insurance cooperatives created under the law, which currently operate in 23 states.

The senators are also proposing legislation that would instruct state insurance regulators to develop models for selling insurance across state lines. The release said that would "help us discern the benefits and challenges of selling health insurance in this manner, and determine if it is a means to increasing choice and competition among plans–potentially driving down costs while maintaining quality and value."

Another measure would make the employer mandate requirements voluntary for employers with fewer than 100 employees, which the summary said is about 98 percent of businesses. Under current law, businesses with 50 or more employees generally have to provide coverage to their full-time employees or pay a penalty.

Other proposals in the series are aimed at simplifying businesses' reporting requirements for coverage and adjusting how family members working for the same employer are counted under the employer mandate.

The list also includes bills to provide "a permanent path for consumers to seamlessly enroll directly through insurers or certified web-based entities" in addition to the federal exchange website, and to boost access to agents and brokers on the exchanges.

"Beyond these proposals, there are more steps to take to help the health care reform law work better for employers and to continue to make sure premiums are affordable for all Americans," the senators wrote in Politico. "But let's stop trying to score political points by turning up the rhetoric and instead roll up our sleeves and get to work."

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