WASHINGTON — Health insurance companies, facing the threat of a government health plan, offered Tuesday to reduce rates for millions of women and accept close federal regulation of their industry.
The higher premiums now affect 5.7 million women, many of them self-employed people who must buy their own coverage.
The industry is trying to head off creation of a government health plan that would compete with companies to enroll middle-class workers and their families. President Obama and many Democrats favor such a plan, but the companies say it would drive them out of business. Employer groups are also leery, fearing a public plan would entice young, healthy workers by offering lower premiums.
"I do not accept the premise that to keep the [private] plans honest you need a public program," said Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, told a Senate panel that is crafting sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation's $2.5-trillion healthcare system.
Although the bill won't be written for weeks, insurers and other interest groups are trying to shape it now.
Instead of a government plan as a check on their industry, insurers are offering to accept a series of consumer protections they contend would add up to a fairer marketplace and cut into the ranks of the 50 million uninsured.
"We are comfortable with that," Ignagni told the Senate Finance Committee at a session on how to cover the uninsured. She was part of a large panel including representatives from business, labor unions, insurers and consumer groups.
Finance Committee leaders want to bring a bill to the Senate floor this summer. The broad outlines will follow Obama's campaign proposal, which builds on the current system of shared responsibility among employers, government and individuals.
Most Americans are covered through employer plans, which are prohibited from charging higher premiums because of gender, poor health or other similar factors. Only about 9% buy their own health insurance.
It's in this group that women face higher rates. That's because healthcare costs for women tend to go up during childbearing years. Some policies don't cover maternity care.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested such practices amount to discrimination.
"The disparity between women and men in the individual marketplace is just plain wrong, and it has to change," Kerry said.