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Boost for Insurance Accessibility : Senate measure would go far in aiding those who have left group plans

January 31, 1996

Access to health insurance, always a problem, is an even bigger headache these days as corporate restructurings and other economic upheavals force more and more Americans to change jobs or go into business for themselves. Many who leave a company group plan find they cannot buy such insurance individually. This problem of accessibility must be rectified.

In his State of the Union address, President Clinton put the spotlight on a bipartisan bill by Sens. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) intended to do precisely that. But despite 42 co-sponsors from both parties, their proposed Health Insurance Reform Act has been held up since last August, when it was unanimously passed by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

The bill focuses on the availability and portability of health coverage only for those who have maintained continuous coverage under an employee-sponsored health plan for at least a year and a half, have exhausted their COBRA benefits and are ineligible for coverage under another group policy.

The measure would restrict the ability of insurers and employers to impose exclusions based on preexisting health conditions and prevent insurers from dropping coverage when an individual changed jobs or a family member became ill. It would also help small companies and individuals gain more purchasing clout in the group coverage market.

The bill imposes no federal outlays or mandates. Nor does it provide health care coverage for everyone or remedies for the many other shortcomings of our health care system. But in its narrow focus the bill is supported by a range of groups, including the National Assn. of Manufacturers, the American Medical Assn. and the National Assn. of State Insurance Commissioners.

California's senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, say they strongly back the bill. Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) is offering a companion measure in the House. The Kassebaum-Kennedy bill would be a small but very important step in health reform.

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