Health Committee Passes Merkley Amendment to Expand Health Care Access for Small Businesses

Washington, DC – An amendment sponsored by Oregon’s Senator
Jeff Merkley that would expand health care access and choices for small
businesses was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
(HELP) Committee today.  The Small Business Choice Guarantee amendment was
offered during committee consideration of major health care reform legislation.

The Small Business Choice Guarantee amendment has been
endorsed by the National Association of Realtors, the Oregon Small Business
Council, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Main Street Alliance, Small
Business Majority, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the
Center for Rural Affairs, Oregon Small Business Healthcare Initiative (OSBHI),
and Oregon Small Business for Responsible Leadership (OSBRL).

“Over the last several years, I’ve talked to many small
business owners who’d like to offer health coverage to their employees but just
can’t afford it.  They have no market clout and they are like a lamb to
the slaughter when trying to negotiate with insurance companies,” said
Merkley.  “The Small Business Choice Guarantee amendment removes this
obstacle by allowing small businesses to enter into gateways where their
combined numbers will bring down costs and provide them with more options.”

The amendment expands options by giving many more small
businesses access to newly created health insurance gateways.  These
gateways encourage greater competition by pooling the number of purchasers in a
specific region.  In Oregon alone, Merkley’s amendment would allow nearly
25,000 more businesses – employing 485,000 workers – to enter the
gateways.  Nationally, the number of additional eligible businesses is
1.59 million, employing more than 32 million Americans.

By allowing large numbers of small businesses,
self-employed, and individuals to band together and requiring clear and
consistent information, gateways will give Americans more choices,
apples-to-apples comparisons, and stable costs.  Insurance companies will
offer a variety of insurance products in the gateways, encouraging competition,
pooling risk, improving quality, and keeping costs down.

The Merkley amendment will give small businesses that offer
health insurance the option of buying insurance for their employees through the
gateways or continuing to purchase insurance as they always have.  Prior
to adoption of the Merkley amendment, the bill allowed, but did not guarantee,
small businesses with fewer than 10 employees the opportunity to participate in
the gateways.  Merkley’s amendment guarantees that businesses with up to
50 employees have access to the gateways if they choose.  States or the
federal government could set the minimum threshold higher, but not lower.

When employers participate in the gateways, they will
continue to pay a portion of the insurance costs as they do now, and their
employees will be able to choose from among the private insurance plans in the
gateway or the new, public community health insurance option to find a plan
that suits them best.  They also will be able to keep that insurance if
they lose or leave their jobs.  The Merkley amendment will not increase
the cost of the bill.

“A small business with thirty employees just doesn’t have
the numbers needed to negotiate with insurance companies.  And if that
small employer has even one employee with a chronic health problem, premiums
can quickly become too expensive,” said Merkley.  “By pooling their
negotiating power, small businesses have the same clout as Fortune 500
companies and insurers will compete for their business.  When we combine
that with a community health insurance option, we’re going to see greater
competition, lower costs and better services.  I’m proud the committee
agreed that we need to do more to help our small employers and look forward to
working with my colleagues to pass legislation to finally fix our broken health
care system.”