Employers Shift Health Care Reform Fight to Senate

By Staff Report

Nov. 10, 2009

Business interests wasted little time in criticizing a health care reform bill passed this month by the House, and they moved just as swiftly to press their case in the Senate, where a key committee has been more receptive to employer demands yet is unlikely to vote a measure before year’s end.

The House bill, which won passage by only two votes during a late-night session Saturday, November 7, has been roundly criticized by employers. The bill includes a publicly run health care option; a requirement that employers provide health insurance or pay a tax equal to as much as 8 percent of payroll; and a provision that employer plans meet minimum health care benefit standards.

Employers say these provisions and others would weaken the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, which makes it easier for employers to offer health plans to employees in multiple states.

Employers for a Healthy Economy, a group of 11 employer associations that includes small-business groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded a $10 million, 19-state media blitz the week before the House vote. Though it ultimately failed to alter the outcome, employers are optimistic that momentum in the Senate is moving in their direction.

“The Senate is a more reasonable place right now,” said James Gelfand, senior manager for health policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Part of that is there’s not an 80-seat majority. Every vote is important in the Senate. That gives the business community a much better chance of improving the bill.”

Time is also on the side of business.

Debate in the Senate might begin before the end of the year, but a final vote isn’t expected until early 2010.

“More time means more debate and more chances to fix this thing,” Gelfand said.

Though employers are in general agreement about their likes and dislikes, they have had different priorities depending on their size and industry.

The National Coalition on Benefits, with more than 400 members ranging from Verizon and Best Buy to local chambers of commerce, has focused primarily on making sure legislation does not change ERISA.

The group believes ERISA would be eroded by certain provisions in the House that would require some employers to provide employees with insurance that meets basic minimums. It also opposes proposed limitations on how much employers can increase premiums for retirees.

Any change to ERISA “would be a fundamental change to a legal framework that employers have come to rely on,” said Paul Dennett, senior vice president of the American Benefits Council.

Employers for a Healthy Economy, which formed in the weeks leading up to the House vote, has been more aggressive in taking its criticism public. As a vote nears in the Senate, the group is likely to speak out again. It opposes new taxes and penalties for employers that don’t provide health benefits.

Employers are lobbying senators whose votes are seen as key for Democrats to achieve their filibuster-proof majority of 60, including Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, a conservative Democrat who recently won re-election; Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, who is among the most conservative Democrats; Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats; and Senate Finance Committee members Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, and Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, whose re-election bid next year is far from certain.

The only targeted Republican is Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who voted for the Senate Finance Committee bill because it did not include a public option.

—Jeremy Smerd

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