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Will the Ailing Economy Make the Case for Health Care Overhaul?

By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

September 18, 2008 -- The nation's worsening economy creates even more pressure for Congress to pass sweeping changes to the U.S. health care system, House Democrats said Thursday.

"Now that we are experiencing an economic downturn, more people will be out of work and needing health care coverage," Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., said as the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee convened a hearing to discuss options for overhauling health care.

"Is it okay to let our families, friends and neighbors continue to fall through the cracks of our broken health care system or are we going to finally resolve ourselves to providing affordable, accessible and high quality health care to every American citizen?" asked Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. "I think the answer is clear."

Witnesses offered the panel several ideas for change that have been heard many times before on Capitol Hill. Some analysts said free-market approaches, such as allowing health care insurance to be sold across state lines or wider use of health savings accounts, would help more Americans afford health insurance. Others said that expanding the federal health program Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) would be the best way to provide coverage to millions of Americans who do not now have health insurance.

Employers urged lawmakers to keep business in mind as Capitol Hill contemplates a health care overhaul. "The burden of providing health care coverage has created a tremendous competitive disadvantage to American employers," said E. J. Holland, Jr., senior vice president, human resources and communications, of Embarq Corp., a communications services company. "I can tell you that the current system harms American business as it struggles to say competitive with the rest of the world."

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., said next year "there will be new opportunities for reform" not only because a new administration will be in office "but also because support for comprehensive reform has become widespread, and a diverse group of business and health industry leaders are now calling for change."

Separately Thursday, the Business Roundtable unveiled a health care plan the group said would expand make health insurance more affordable and ensure "a stable, secure public safety net." Elements of the plan include greater use of health information technology and providing consumers with more information about quality health care. An "open, all-inclusive market" for health insurance is another provision, as is a requirement that all Americans purchase insurance either from their employers or from the private market.

The American Medical Association (AMA) also on Thursday announced a new series of broadcast, print and online advertisements calling on Congress and the next president to work together to pass legislation that will help all Americans obtain health care coverage. Additional effort is needed, AMA members said, as the economy falters.

"Most privately insured Americans get health insurance through an employer, and their coverage is at risk as unemployment rises," said AMA president Nancy Nielsen. "The most common reason patients have become uninsured this year is because they or someone in their family lost their job."

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