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Health insurance industry launches own reform drive in Ohio

Pre-emptive drive begins in Columbus

Plain Dealer Bureau

Sabrina Eaton

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Washington - The health insurance industry wants you to know it feels your pain before the next president makes it feel some pain.

To get ahead of the election debate on health-care reform, the nation's main health insurance trade group kicks off a nationwide health-care reform drive in Columbus today with a public meeting between its CEO and a group of uninsured Ohioans. America's Health Insurance Plans is planning events and TV ads throughout the country but picked Ohio to launch its campaign because it's a battleground state that demographically reflects the nation.

Health-care reform ranks just behind the economy and Iraq war as the most important issue to voters, according to a nationwide poll released last week by Quinnipiac University. Health care advocates believe the next president will make changes.

That's why the health-insurance lobby wants to get a head start in Columbus.

Fifteen years ago, insurers helped sink reforms proposed by President Clinton with an ad campaign featuring a fictional couple, "Harry and Louise," who complained Clinton's cures would worsen problems.

Now, the industry is more conciliatory. Its first newspaper ads say: "Health care costs too much. We agree." The insurers won't reveal how much they're spending on their "Campaign for an American Solution" initiative or say whether they prefer proposals by Republican Sen. John McCain or Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

"They are both talking about areas where there's lots of room for consensus, like prevention, management of chronic conditions, and making expansion of coverage a top priority," says AHIP Executive Vice President Mike Tuffin.

The insurers want any reforms to build on the current system, which covers 250 million Americans, and say that tax credits could be used to extend coverage to some of the nation's 47 million uninsured. When they hold their event in Columbus, a separate health-care reform coalition funded by labor unions and Democratic-leaning activist groups will protest outside. That group, called Health Care for America Now, says that profit-driven health insurers can't be trusted to fix the system.

Health Care for America Now - which launched its own $40 million voter mobilization campaign earlier this month with events in 38 states - wants private insurers to be regulated strictly, so they can't deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, hike premiums for the sick or elderly, or charge higher rates to women. It also seeks public health insurance as an alternative to private plans.

"Health care will be a big issue regardless of who is elected president," says the group's national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch. He prefers Obama's approach to McCain's, in part because Obama wants a public health insurance option.

Obama and McCain both want to make it easier for employees to retain insurance if they switch jobs, and cut medical costs by boosting preventive care.

They take different approaches toward covering the uninsured. McCain would eliminate employers' ability to deduct health insurance costs as a business expense, but he would provide refundable tax credits that workers could use to purchase health insurance. His campaign estimates his plan would help an extra 20 million to 30 million people get health insurance.

Obama wants to let those with insurance keep their plans, and create a new national insurance program that would give the nation's uninsured coverage similar to what federal employees receive. Employers who don't contribute toward their workers' health insurance would have to contribute to the national plan.

McCain domestic policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin says Obama's plan would reduce flexibility, cost an exorbitant amount, and encourage employers to cut workers' coverage and put them on the government plan.

Obama domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden said employers would drop coverage under McCain's plan because they could no longer deduct it, forcing workers onto the more expensive individual market.

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