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Health insurers try to head off public plan

WASHINGTON – The health insurance industry offered Tuesday to end its practice of charging higher premiums to women.

It was the latest concession from health insurers as Congress works to overhaul the nation’s $2.5 trillion health care system.

Insurers are trying to head off creation of a government insurance plan that would compete with them — something many Democrats favor but which private insurers say would drive them out of business.

Instead health insurers have offered to submit to a series of restrictions they contend would add up to a fairer marketplace and cut into the ranks of the 50 million uninsured.

The latest came Tuesday as the head of the leading private insurance group told senators that women should no longer be charged more than men in the individual market, as long as all Americans are required to get insurance coverage. Health care costs for women tend to be higher during childbearing years.

“We don’t believe gender should be a subject of rating,” Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, said as the Senate Finance Committee convened a roundtable on covering the uninsured.

“We are ready to be accountable to those rules,” she said.

“I do not accept the premise that to keep the plans honest you need a public program.”

Insurers last year offered to end the practice of denying coverage to sick people, and earlier this year they went still farther by offering to stop charging sick people more.

They still haven’t done enough to convince many Democrats.

“The bottom line is you need somebody who is not a private insurance company to be in the mix and there are many of us who feel very strongly about that,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told Ignagni and a panel of witnesses from the insurance industry, labor unions, business groups and others. “It would be giving all of you in the insurance industry an unfair advantage not to have a public plan.”

For some Democrats, particularly liberals in the House, support for a public plan is already a compromise because their real preference is for a “single-payer” plan — an entirely government-run program like some European countries have.

Underscoring the strong feelings about that, Tuesday’s meeting began with Capitol Police ejecting protesters who interrupted senators by shouting in favor of a single-payer plan. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has said that’s not on the table.

“We want a seat at the table,” shouted one protester.

“We want police,” Baucus responded.

Capitol Police removed eight people.

Baucus and many others, including President Barack Obama, say single-payer is not practical or politically feasible. They want to build on the current setup of employer-based care, which is how most Americans under age 65 get their health care.

Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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