INSURANCE AGENTS PURSUE CHANGES IN HEALTH CARE, BUT NOTHING RADICAL

INSURANCE AGENTS PURSUE CHANGES IN HEALTH CARE, BUT NOTHING RADICAL

The nation's largest organization of insurance agents Monday unveiled a health care proposal calling for cost containment and other measures, but not radical revision of the health care system.

The proposal put forward by Independent Insurance Agents of America offers a host of recommendations that include many of the suggestions contained in health care reform plans offered by President Bush and Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, the Senate Finance Committee chairman.The recommendations offered by the association emphasize cost containment measures to combat the problem of paying for health care that affects consumers, including the agents and their employees who face the difficulties associated with all small employers.

Cost containment proposals should include streamlined administration, such as using common insurance forms and automated claims systems, the group said. Additional cost savings could be gained by encouraging use of health maintenance organizations and other managed care programs, along with professional review of patient treatment, the proposal said.

The expanding role of independent insurance agents outside of traditional property and casualty lines helped spur the agents' group to develop the proposal.

It was the first health care proposal approved by the association since 1974, when both the industry and the group itself looked much different, said Chris Larsen, a lobbyist with the group.

"It was 100 years ago as far as health care goes," Mr. Larsen said.

"I'm glad to see they're in the game," said John Fleming, president of the International Foundation of Employee Benefits and administrative director of the Bakery, Confectionary Union and Industry Health Pensions Funds. The foundation is a nonprofit group that serves as an information clearinghouse for the employee benefits industry.

The agents' association also proposed that Dr. Louis Sullivan, secretary of health and human services, establish an advisory board to review and propose guidelines for health care costs.

Mr. Fleming praised the cost containment ideas while criticizing the proposed advisory committee as "inadequate" to cause meaningful cost control.

The agents' group recommended enacting tax incentives to allow self- employed people, such as independent agents, to deduct 100 percent of their health care contributions, up from the current level of 25 percent.

That change would match the deduction allowed for big business and encourage offerring health care benefits to employees, the association said.

Insurance reform and creating state-operated health insurance risk pools are other modifications that would help guarantee access to care, the agents added.

"Possibly the most crucial aspect of the health care crisis is that those with the greatest need have the most difficulty obtaining insurance," according to the group.

Small companies must be guaranteed access to health insurance and insurers should not be allowed to deny coverage to these groups or take other actions to restrict access to insurance, the association maintained.

The risk pools would be created to shelter insurance companies seeking to avoid high-risk groups or individuals, the group noted.

The agents also advocated federal pre-emption of state-mandated benefits, medical malpractice reform, and the elimination of cost-shifting.

The group opposed any government move to enter the insurance industry

because it would be difficult to create a level playing field between a subsidized public program and private industry.

The agents specifically opposed either national health insurance or the ''play-or-pay" plan, which would create a national risk insurance pool requiring employers to pay a fee if they fail to provide coverage for their own employees.

"Obviously a single-payor plan would put the private health insurance industry out of work," Mr. Larsen said.

Another major insurance agents' group, the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, has not taken a formal position on health care reform.

"Our concern, like theirs and many others, is the skyrocketing cost of health care," said Jim Kurtzke, a spokesman for the professional agents group. "We advocate aggressive cost controls in health care within the existing private health insurance system."