The state Senate passed a health care bill Friday that rescinds key provisions of the 1993 reform act.
Disappointed consumer advocates called the measure a bill of rights for the insurance industry.
The bill was the product of an agreement reached by Gov. Mike Lowry, businesses and lawmakers of both political parties. The agreement was a reversal for Lowry, who had long promised he would not let go of key provisions of the 1993 act.
Lowry worked tirelessly for passage of the original act, which he hailed as a model for the nation.
“Compared to Camelot, this isn’t Camelot,” Lowry said Friday night. “But given where we are, I think the Legislature should be complimented on bringing together these reforms.”
The Senate voted 39-9 to approve the plan, which is virtually assured of passing the Republican-controlled House as well.
The bill allows twice as many people to join the state-subsidized Basic Health Plan. In addition, 125,000 more children could be covered under Medicaid. Combined, that could potentially cut in half the number of uninsured people in the state - now estimated at about 600,000.
The measure also provides small businesses and individuals access to community-rated health care plans, which will allow them to pool their buying power and get better rates.
The agreement sheds many key pieces of the Health Services Act of 1993, including a cap on insurance rates and a requirement that insurers sell at least a minimum package of health benefits to all customers.
“That allows insurance companies to play hanky panky,” said state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, who campaigned on health care reform in 1992.
The compromise measure wasn’t good enough for some Democratic senators, either. “This isn’t health care reform, it’s health care regression,” said Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle.
Said Sen. Jeanne Kohl, D-Seattle: “I feel like we are in the twilight zone in this chamber, like Alice in Wonderland who’s nibbled on some magic mushrooms.
“Consumer protection has now become insurance company protection.”
Lowry and Democrats who voted for the bill said it was the best they could do given the Republican shift in the state Legislature and inaction by the U.S. Congress, which failed to approve waivers needed to fully implement the 1993 act.
One of the waivers was needed to mandate that businesses help pay for health insurance for their employees.
The compromise plan does make some health-reform gains, even die-hard reform proponents said. Kevin Quigley, D-Lake Stevens, who had sponsored a more generous health care bill, said, “It’s not the progress I had hoped for, but it is still progress worth voting for.”
Sen. John Moyer, R-Spokane, who voted for the 1993 act, agreed.
“We don’t have to hang our heads about this,” said Moyer, noting that even though the bill doesn’t cap premiums or guarantee minimum coverage, it is intended to forbid exclusion from coverage because of pre-existing conditions or a job change.
Lowry said critics of the compromise are unrealistic.
“It’s obvious: You always work with what you have. Those who want to work with some nirvana that’s not there - it’s my job to work with what we have, not what we wish would have been.”
Lowry said he was concerned a business-backed initiative campaign to defeat health care reform could have left the state with nothing, if a more liberal bill had been negotiated.
“I think we could have won an initiative campaign, but I was in the minority on that, and it was a lot to risk.”
Deciding whether to fight on or cut a deal was a close call, negotiators said.
“Make no bones about it, I’m sad we had to give up as much as we did to get agreement,” said Rep. Dennis Dellwo, D-Spokane, who was instrumental in passing the landmark bill in 1993.
“(Lowry) made a decision as to whether it was worth it, and it was a close call.”
Some people praised Lowry for moving to what they always believed was a better policy.
“It’s a dose of political reality,” said Rep. Todd Mielke, R-Spokane, chairman of the House Republican Caucus.
“He’s trying to recover ground,” Sen. James West, R-Spokane, said of Lowry. “It’s better to compromise than be run over.”