Health costs facing change
Bush, GOP are pushing a plan to switch more of the burden for insurance premiums to workers.
WASHINGTON - Emboldened by their success at the polls, the Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress think they have a new opportunity to move the nation away from the system of employer-provided health insurance that has covered most working Americans for the last half-century.
In its place, they want to erect a system in which workers -- instead of looking to employers for health insurance -- would take personal responsibility for protecting themselves and their families: They would buy high-deductible "catastrophic" insurance policies to cover major medical needs, then pay routine costs with money set aside in tax-sheltered health savings accounts.
Elements of that approach have been on the conservative agenda for years, but what has suddenly put it on the fast track is Republicans' confidence that the political balance of power has changed. With Democratic strength reduced, President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., are pushing for action.
Supporters of the new approach, who see it as part of Bush's "ownership society," say workers and their families would become more careful users of health care if they had to pay the bills. Also, they say, the lower premiums on high-deductible plans would make coverage affordable for the uninsured and for small businesses.
"My view is that this is absolutely the next big thing," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose consulting firm focuses on health care.
Critics say the Republican approach is really an attempt to shift the risks, massive costs and knotty problems of health care from employers to individuals. And they say the Republican Party is moving forward with far less public attention or debate than have surrounded Bush's plans to overhaul Social Security.
Indeed, Bush's health insurance agenda is far more developed than his Social Security plans and is advancing at a rapid clip through a combination of actions by government, insurers, employers and individuals.
Health savings accounts, known as HSAs, have already been approved. They were created as a little-noticed appendage to the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill.
The combination of HSAs and catastrophic insurance is too new for any definitive data on how consumers are faring.
A study released Thursday by the Commonwealth Fund found that people with high-deductible policies were more likely to have trouble paying medical bills than those in traditional insurance plans. They were also more likely to skip care because of cost.