Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of Senator Alexander - Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act, S. 1955

Posted on May 10, 2006

Mr. President, I come to the Senate floor to speak about getting some long overdue help for small business men and women in Tennessee who have really been struggling to afford health insurance for themselves, their employees, and their families. We have an opportunity in this body to do something about it. This is not some abstract discussion we are having here; this is about something every single one of us hears -- at least I know I hear it. Whether I go to Mountain City or Sevierville or Lexington or Memphis -- wherever I go in Tennessee, a small business man or woman says to me: We cannot afford health care costs, and we need some help. We have some help. We have a proposal by Senator Enzi that will provide some help to small business men and women. Now is the time for us to act. Now is the time for the people of this country who are listening to this, who know we need this, to say to Senators: Let's go. Let's do this. Let's take the Enzi bill and reduce health care costs for small businesses across this country, and at the same time let's cut into the millions of Americans who are uninsured because the people for whom they work cannot afford to offer them health care insurance. Here is the situation in Tennessee. We have well over 2 million people at work in Tennessee, and 97 percent of all businesses are what we would call small businesses. So that is whom we are talking about in our State -- more than 2 million people who work, many of whom are working for companies that cannot afford to provide them health care insurance or are gradually reaching the point where they can't give them that benefit anymore. Increased health insurance costs are driving employers and families away from comprehensive coverage. Increased costs are taking away the opportunity for a working family in Tennessee to be able to work for a company that can offer a basic insurance policy that the family and the employer can afford. What we are doing this week is moving away from that situation. What we are doing in the Senate this week and next week is providing an opportunity to change that situation. Dennis Akin runs the Wash Wizard car wash in Hendersonville, TN. We are not talking about big-time CEOs who make $350 million a year and fly corporate jets somewhere. We are talking about Dennis Akin who runs the Wash Wizard car wash in Hendersonville, TN, just outside of Nashville. This is what he says: “I am currently providing health care for all my employees and their families. The cost at the present time is over $44,000 per year for 5 employees, up 28 percent from last year. The premiums have escalated at about that rate for the last several years, and twice I have had to drop to plans with lesser coverage to be able to pay the premiums.” Dennis Akin went on to say: “We really need to be able to find some kind of relief or we'll have to reduce our benefit level to where the financial burden on my staff could be devastating. In a business as small as mine [he's running a car wash] health care costs are my largest expense and there seems to be no end in sight.” According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about a third of Tennessee firms with 50 or fewer employees offer health insurance to their employees. In contrast, 95 percent of Tennessee firms with 50 or more employees offer health insurance to their employees. Our economy is not static. It changes all the time. Every year, we lose an estimated 5 to 8 percent of our jobs. That is a lot of jobs. That is between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs just in Tennessee. The good news is we have the strongest economy in the world, and we are gaining more jobs than we lose. But where do those jobs come from? They don't primarily come from Federal Express or Eastman Chemical or the Aluminum Company of America or DuPont. We are glad to have all those great employers in Tennessee, but most of the new jobs come from the Wash Wizard car wash in Hendersonville, TN, and companies like that. These are new companies, small companies. They may be adding two or three employees a year. Currently, only a third of those firms, those firms with 50 or fewer, can afford to offer health insurance of any kind to their employees. What does that mean? That means that most Tennesseans are simply left without any access to health care that they can afford because in our country, the way things are today, most people get their health insurance from their employer. Maybe that is not the way it should be. Maybe 10 years from now, we will be in a different sort of system. But since World War II, that has been the way it has been. By an accident of our history, most Americans get their health insurance at the place where they work. What we are saying is, in states such as Tennessee, and all across this country, only a third of the people who work for small businesses -- which is where 97 percent of the people work -- can get a health care plan there. No wonder we have a lot uninsured people, and no wonder we have a lot of families worrying about the rising cost of health care. The reason we are having this debate is the chairman has a bill that will fix that situation. It will lower health care costs for small businesses and help families be able to afford a basic health insurance plan. Every American ought to want that to succeed, and we need to pass this bill. We need to do this, and it is important for the American people to know that we intend to bring this to a vote in the next few days. The discrepancy between what is available in the big companies and what is available in the small, independent companies is absolutely unfair. There is no reason for it. Earlier this month, the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee's largest small business advocacy group, delivered 10,905 petitions in support of this bill signed by small business owners in Tennessee who want lower health care costs. We must make health insurance affordable for Tennessee's small business owners and for working families. Senator Enzi is the committee chairman who has worked on this bill and who has been able to work through a lot of obstacles that prevented this from happening in the Senate before. The Small Business Act -- a fancy name is the Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act -- I, like Chairman Enzi, like to call it the Small Business Health Insurance Act. That is a pretty good name because that says what it does. Here is what it will do: It will allow businesses and trade associations to band their members together and offer group health insurance coverage on a national or regional basis. It will empower small business owners and give them the opportunity to choose a health plan that is best for their families and best for their employees. This bill will promote lower costs and greater access to health care. Lower cost means the employer can afford it. The plan itself, with the employee contribution -- if the employee can afford it -- means there will be more access to it. It will do that by, No. 1, permitting the creation of fully insured small business health plans; No. 2, creating more options in benefit design -- in other words, you will have more choices; if you want this or this, if you can't afford that, you can try this -- and, No. 3, it harmonizes insurance regulations across State lines while keeping States as the primary regulators. I am a former governor. I am for states rights. You often see me on the Senate floor asserting the principle of federalism. I believe strong states and strong communities are important for our country and that we ought not be constantly passing national solutions to problems without recognizing that. But I believe the Enzi bill properly respects the principle of federalism. It protects State oversight. It protects State authority. I also believe it is important to have a level playing field for everyone in the market -- and the bill does that as well. A study prepared by the Milwaukee firm of Mercer Oliver Wyman for the National Small Business Association found that the Enzi bill would, one, reduce health insurance costs for small businesses by 12 percent, about $1,000 per employee, and reduce the number of uninsured and working families by 8 percent, approximately 1 million people nationwide would have basic health insurance who today don't have it. This bill would cut the cost of health insurance for small businesses, which is 97 percent of where the people in my State work. That is No. 1. No. 2, it reduces the number of uninsured and working families by 1 million people across this country. This is a piece of legislation worth passing. It actually does something for somebody. This is a rare opportunity to help small businesses. It is a real milestone moment, and Chairman Enzi is to be commended for getting the bill this far. The House of Representatives has passed this legislation, on which the Presiding Officer served, and I am sure he has voted for it three, four, or five times over in the House of Representatives. But then it gets over here to the Senate, and we have been in gridlock for 10 years on this issue. The House of Representatives has passed this legislation eight times, and for 10 years we haven't been able to find a way to say we are going to reduce the health care costs for small businesses by 12 percent and decrease the number of Americans who are uninsured, that we are going to give 1 million of them insurance. That was until Chairman Enzi set his sights on trying to unravel the stalemate. He did it. He got the small business community together with the insurance commissioners and the insurance companies all around one table to discuss how to make it work. We need to take advantage of this rare opportunity to help the small business men and women in Tennessee and across this country to find affordable health insurance by passing this important legislation. We have said on the Republican side that this is Health Week; that we have heard the American people; we know that there are uninsured Americans; and, we know that small businesspeople are struggling. They are struggling with the cost of runaway litigation. We are trying to stop that, but the other side of the aisle blocked that twice this week when we put up legislation that would have given mothers and babies a chance to be better served by OB/GYN doctors. Who can be against that? The other side of the aisle was against it. They basically kept Tennessee mothers who are pregnant from having a chance to be served by OB/GYN doctors. Now they have to drive a long way to have their babies. Unfortunately, they are going to have to keep driving because the other side of the aisle said, no; you are not going to even be able to vote on that. Now we have moved to the next issue that will help small business. If we couldn't this week help mothers who are about to have babies by giving them better access to health care, at the very least we can take the Enzi bill and pass it and say to the thousands and thousands of realtors, to the thousands and thousands of barbershops, gas stations, and say to Dennis Akin who runs the Wash Wizard car wash in Hendersonville, TN, we can say to the small businesses in Tennessee -- which is 97 percent of all the businesses -- we will cut your insurance costs by 12 percent, or at least give you that option, and to the people of this country we will increase by 1 million the number who are are able to get insurance. This legislation is a good piece of legislation to help lower the cost of health insurance. I hope very much that in the next several days we can pass it. The House has passed it eight times. We can at least pass it once, and then the American people will see that we hear them and we are doing the job they want us to do.