MARK FOREMAN – A ‘staggering’ reality

An insurance bill pushed by Realtors across the country stalled in the Senate last week, but the National Association of Realtors has vowed to continue its support.

The Connecticut Association of Realtors is also supporting the bill, which would allow businesses to buy insurance through regional or national trade associations. It was passed by the House of Representatives last year but stalled in the Senate when Democrats blocked a motion that would have limited debate by a vote of 55-43, citing Republicans’ refusal to allow votes on amendments the Democrats considered a priority.

Supporters say if the law passes, self-employed workers across the country, such as real estate agents and employees at small companies, would have access to the same group insurance plans that are currently available to large corporations and trade unions.

“Access to quality affordable health care for oneself and one’s family is important to everyone,” CAR President Mark Foreman said in a prepared statement. “It’s staggering to learn that a full 28 percent of Realtors nationwide have no health insurance coverage at all for themselves or their families. And that is just among the Realtor community; it doesn’t include people working in other fields. Realtors in Connecticut are actively urging their senators and congressmen to do the right thing and enact small-business health plans for the good of all small-business owners, their employees and their families.”

Indeed, a group of Realtors were in Washington, D.C., earlier this week to encourage the passage of the legislation and other bills they deem important.

According to a poll conducted by NAR, almost nine out of 10 Connecticut residents who are likely to vote strongly support the concept of small-business health plans. Eighty-seven percent of respondents favored that approach to improving health care access and affordability.

A Universal Concern

CAR leaders were among those in the nation’s capital earlier this week and did not return a request for interviews by press time, but several Realtors from Massachusetts gave examples of how the cost of health insurance has affected them.

When Realtor Jeanette Tighe left the large real estate company she was working for 18 months ago, her health insurance costs nearly doubled.

Tighe’s monthly health insurance premium jumped from $363 to $600 – with no coverage for dental office visits or prescription drugs.

But the Burlington, Mass.-based Realtor said she feels fortunate because Exit Realty, the company where she is currently a vice president, will pay a portion of the costs. Other real estate agents aren’t so lucky, having to pay as much as $700 to $800 out of pocket for the most basic type of health insurance coverage, or instead going without insurance altogether because they can’t afford it.

“It is a really huge issue for [Realtors],” said Tighe, who serves as vice president of government affairs for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. “If we could band together to get group insurance, we would have less expensive and better coverage.”

Tighe joined 150 other Bay State Realtors this week in Washington to urge Congress to pass the bill.

About 335,000 Realtors nationwide are uninsured.

“It’s a tremendous burden for these entrepreneurs that we call small-business people,” said Robert N. Authier, MAR’s chief executive officer and executive vice president.

But the proposed legislation, sponsored by a Republican Senator from Wyoming, is facing stiff opposition from the insurance industry, a host of health issues advocacy groups, and Democrats who are pushing universal health care coverage – including Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

As recently as last week, Kennedy was quoted in news reports as saying the bill – which opponents say would enable insurance companies to increase premiums for groups considered greater health risks and to bypass state requirements to cover a menu of medical treatments and tests – would undermine Massachusetts’ recently passed law to provide health insurance to all.

In response to the Senate vote last Thursday, NAR President Thomas M. Stevens thanked Sens. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., for their strong leadership and promised that Realtors across the country would continue to urge their senators to support the legislation.

“We can take heart in how close we are to victory,” Stevens said in a prepared statement. “It’s clear that we have the votes necessary to pass the legislation. Realtors can be proud of what we have achieved so far. Our outpouring of letters and phone calls to the Senate was unprecedented – more than 250,000 letters and thousands of phone calls in the last week alone! NAR made the difference.”

This week was the first time in 11 years that the full Senate took up the issue of small-business health plans.

“We look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Enzi and Sen. Nelson to continue to challenge opponents of [the bill] to bring forth acceptable solutions to the problem of unaffordable insurance for small businesses and the self-employed,” said Stevens in a prepared statement.

The National Association of Realtors has joined a coalition of groups, including the National Federation of Independent Business and the Associated Builders and Contractors, to aggressively campaign for passage of the small-business health plan legislation.

NAR, which has spent millions on a national advertising campaign in support of the bill this year, disputes critics who say the legislation would preempt all state insurance laws.

The group argues that under the proposed bill, quality health insurance plans must be provided and any insurer working with a trade association would be required to be licensed in every state in which the small-business plan enrolls participants, which means they would be regulated by the state’s insurance commissioner.

And even though a small-business health plan can provide insurance offerings that don’t comply with state mandates, at least one additional plan option would have to be presented that complies with the state mandates or with coverage offered by a state employee plan in one of the five most populous states, NAR maintains.