Health insurers offer to stop charging women more

May 5, 2009 2:32:35 PM PDT
The health insurance industry offered Tuesday to stop charging women higher premiums, a surcharge that hits many self-employed working women trying to buy their own coverage.

It was the latest concession from insurers as Congress works to overhaul the nation's $2.5 trillion health care system to expand coverage and slow rising costs.

Insurers are trying to head off creation of a government health plan that would compete with them in every state - something many Democrats favor but which the companies say would drive them out of business.

Instead health insurers are offering to submit to close government regulation, accepting a series of restrictions they contend would add up to a fairer marketplace and cut into the ranks of the 50 million uninsured.

"We are comfortable with that," Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, told the Senate Finance Committee at a session on how to cover the uninsured. She was part of a large panel of witnesses including representatives from business, labor unions, insurers, consumer groups and public policy centers.

Ignagni, who heads the private insurers' trade group, told senators that the industry is ready to stop charging women more than men. Health care costs for women tend to be higher during childbearing years.

The higher premiums mainly affect women who are trying to buy coverage on their own. Most Americans are covered through employer plans, which are required to offer a broad range of benefits and prohibited from charging more to those in poor health.

That's not the case in the individual market. Insurance companies use a variety of tactics that discriminate against women, said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. These include writing policies that don't cover maternity care and charging women more than men for identical coverage.

"The disparity between women and men in the individual marketplace is just plain wrong and it has to change," said Kerry.

Ignagni readily conceded. "We don't believe gender should be a subject of rating," she said.

Insurers have already offered to stop denying coverage to sick people, and to end the practice of charging higher premiums to those with a history of health problems. In exchange, the industry wants Congress to require all Americans to carry health insurance, either through an employer plan, on their own, or a current government program like Medicaid.

What insurers want to avoid is a new government plan that would be open to middle-class workers and their families. President Barack Obama says such a plan would help keep private industry honest.

"I do not accept the premise that to keep the (private) plans honest you need a public program," said Ignagni.

She said her industry is not asking the public to trust it, but to trust the government officials who would enforce the new protections for consumers.

The industry's concessions have yet to convince many Democrats.

"The bottom line is you need somebody who is not a private insurance company to be in the mix and there are many of us who feel very strongly about that," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "It would be giving all of you in the insurance industry an unfair advantage not to have a public plan."

Schumer said he believes Congress can write rules for a new public plan that would not give it an unfair advantage over private health plans. For example, the public plan would not get taxpayer subsidies beyond paying for startup costs, it would have to follow the same coverage rules, and doctors and hospitals would be free to opt out.

For some Democrats, particularly liberals in the House, support for a public plan is already a compromise because their real preference is for a "single-payer" plan - a government-run program for everyone, like Canada and many European countries have.

Underscoring the strong feelings about that, Tuesday's meeting began with Capitol Police ejecting protesters who interrupted senators by shouting in favor of a single-payer plan. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has said that's not on the table.

"We want a seat at the table," shouted one protester.

"We want police," Baucus responded.

Capitol Police removed eight people.

Baucus and many others, including President Barack Obama, say single-payer is not practical or politically feasible.

"Everything is on the table with the single exception of single-payer," Baucus said recently. "This country is not going to adopt single-payer, at least not at this time."

Baucus and Obama want to build on the current setup of employer-based care, which is how most Americans under age 65 get their health care.

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