Oregon Senators Unveil Plans for Uninsured, Catastrophic Care

July 7, 2006

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith joined forces behind a proposal aimed at helping uninsured people get health coverage and those with insurance avoid financial ruin from a catastrophic illness.

Smith and Wyden say they will propose a series of four state-level test projects that would cost the federal government between $50 million and $100 million. The projects would be co-designed by state governments and private insurers. Oregon would be one of the test states.

The senators said the federal money would subsidize two kinds of plans:

For uninsured people, a “hybrid health plan” that combines preventive care with high-deductible catastrophic coverage. Insurance companies would sell policies either to individuals or businesses that have not offered coverage to employees for at least a year. The senators said low-income workers and families would get aid to reduce their premiums.

For people with insurance but no protection against the costs of major illness, tests of such ideas as reinsurance for small businesses. With reinsurance, a small business owner would pay a premium to hedge against the risk that the cost of one catastrophic illness in a small work force would drive health insurance premiums through the roof, making them unaffordable.

Smith said he wants to learn if a wider use of reinsurance would slow the inflation rate in health care.

The details of both kinds of programs — such as deductibles and breadth of coverage — would depend on how states design their tests. The senators said they would introduce the bill next week, and have scheduled four joint appearances in Oregon to discuss it.

With Congress nearing the end of its session, and election campaigns ahead, both senators acknowledged that this is generally a time of inaction in Washington.

But Smith said the problems addressed by the bill are “scandalous” and “politicians have to have an answer.” If the bill doesn’t meet quick success, he said, it would be well positioned for passage after the elections.

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