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L.A. Chamber Makes Insurance Reform Plea : Regulation: Among the proposals at a state hearing was one for ‘portable’ coverage that a worker could take from one job to the next.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce detailed its demands for health insurance reform Tuesday, calling for insurance that would cover individuals even if they changed jobs.

The cost of caring for California’s 6 million uninsured people is being shifted inequitably onto businesses and is hurting the economic environment by draining resources from education and infrastructure improvements, Julia Thomas, chairwoman of the chamber’s Health Issues Committee, said at a state hearing on proposals to extend coverage to the uninsured.

In a newly revised proposal for reforming the health insurance system, the chamber called for universal access to health insurance, increased and better-distributed funding of Medicare and Medicaid, and “portable” insurance that would not be cut off if a sick worker changed jobs.

State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, who co-chaired the meeting with Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), echoed the need for insurance that is not tied to a single job. “Today, the great majority of us are just one job or one illness away from having no health insurance at all,” he said at the hearing held at the Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

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Julie Smith, an employment specialist at the Southern California chapter of the NationalMultiple Sclerosis Society who has MS herself, said that until recently she maintained three separate health insurance policies because she was “personally terrified of being a victim of no insurance” if she lost her job. The cost became too high, though, so now she maintains “only two.”

Small-business owners complained that the cost of health insurance, if they can get it, is nearly putting them out of business.

Maxine Weinman, owner of Maxine’s Seafood in Hollywood, testified that last month she had to choose between paying the rent on her store or paying health insurance premiums of $225 per person for her employees. She paid the insurance, she said, to make sure one of her employees with full-blown AIDS could get health care.

“My premiums went up 95% in the course of a year,” said Weinman, who employs 14 people. “My revenues are down 40% because of the recession. I can’t pass on the increases to my employees. This is a real hardship.”

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Witnesses at the hearing criticized the insurance industry for moving away from spreading risk to avoiding it by dumping high-risk individuals and groups.

“The basic concept of insurance--sharing risk--has been lost. We have a credit card insurance program that offers a line of credit on the condition you don’t use it, or that you have to pay back (with doubled or tripled premiums),” said Mark Landow, an insurance consultant.

The areas of consensus among various interest groups at the hearing were broad: Virtually all agreed that guaranteed issuance of insurance to small businesses, guaranteed renewal and some limits on rates were needed, although there was significant disagreement on the extent of those limits.

Many business groups opposed calls for a Canadian type single-payer system and state mandates on small businesses. Instead, they argued for reforms that would make private insurance more widely available.

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Margolin, who has authored one of several bills focusing on small-group insurance reform, said making changes to help small businesses is only the first step in more sweeping legislative moves on the health-care system that he hopes will be worked out before year-end.


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