A Health Bill Caught In The Political Crossfire

Presidential campaigns are fought on many fronts, and sometimes innocent victims get caught in the political crossfire. In all the controversy over health care policy, there's one measure that just about everyone agrees should become law: reforms making it easier for small businesses to buy insurance coverage for their workers. But even near-unanimous support may not be enough for a modest health measure to survive the intense partisanship of the fight over an "economic recovery" tax bill.

When the Senate Finance Committee drafts its version of the bill in early March, Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) wants to attach small-market insurance reforms. He would insist insurers coverand at a reasonable rateemployers whose workers incur high-cost illnesses. He would bar insurers from denying coverage to any group that wants it and from charging high-risk groups much more than others. The bill would assure coverage of workers with pre-existing conditions.

Small businesses, insurers, and President Bush support reform enthusiastically. "If this is enacted, it will take away a lot of the momentum for doing something more," says an insurance lobbyist.

But the Democratic-controlled Congress seems determined to produce a tax bill that Bush will veto. Most Democratic leaders would be thrilled if Bush killed legislation including both a middle-class tax cut and a popular health care reform.

A veto won't be the end of this year's debate. Bentsen is likely to try again with small-market reform, while Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) wants a vote on a comprehensive health care bill. And that prospect makes employers, insurers, and the health care industry nervous. "It's silly season," says one business lobbyist. Indeed, many people would be happy to see 1992 pass with no action.

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