Washington Initiatives

Coalition of Consumer Organizations Says 'HealthMarts' Would Hurt Workers

The prognosis for "HealthMarts" is not all that good. The latest attempt by Republicans to come up with an alternative to President Clinton's Patient Bill of Rights (which is itself treading water) is meeting stiff opposition from consumer organizations — and it's still only in the drafting stage.

Think of HealthMarts as supermarkets for health plans. Employers would fund them and send their workers to them to shop for coverage rather than provide it directly, with employees choosing from a smorgasbord of plans and benefits. "It's kind of like a private version of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program," says a staffer on the House Republican working group.

Some Republicans are gung-ho about HealthMarts because they think businesses will wind up saving money by pooling large groups of consumers and shifting costs to individuals and families who use more health services. But the consumer's lobby — which includes 57 consumer, provider, labor, senior citizen and disability groups -- released a letter urging representatives to oppose the proposal because, they say, it's antiworker.

Speaker Newt Gingrich is the key player in efforts by the House working group, but some Republicans are confused about Gingrich's stance on health care reform. According to one policy wonk on Capitol Hill, "Newt really does not want to change the system all that much and the working group is way too out-front trying to protect patients." Look for legislation that will combine a watered-down HealthMarts plan and patient protections already put forth by Georgia Republican Charles Norwood in his fading Patient Access to Responsible Care Act.

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