A look at key issues in the nation's health care debate:
THE ISSUE: Is there an easier, more transparent way for consumers to shop for health insurance?
THE POLITICS: Most Americans under age 65 get insurance coverage through their employers. Small employers, however, increasingly find policies unaffordable. And for the approximately 18 million Americans who buy their own insurance plans, it can be a baffling experience to wade through or even understand competing offers. People who buy their own policies risk paying higher rates or being denied coverage for their health history.
WHAT IT MEANS: The House-passed bill and the legislation in the Senate would create some version of a purchasing exchange or gateway that would allow small employers and individuals not already covered by government or employer plans to shop for insurance. The idea is to create a competitive, regulated marketplace where people can make side-by-side comparisons of available plans. Plans would have to meet minimum criteria in order to be offered and practices like excluding people with pre-existing conditions would be barred. Subsidies would be offered to low-income people. If Congress ends up creating a new public insurance plan, that would be one of the offerings in the exchange. Although the exchanges would represent a major change in how insurance is offered in this country, the idea has generated little controversy on Capitol Hill, despite concerns voiced by some business groups and insurers. Lawmakers are already familiar with a similar model because they can get insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which offers a menu of health plans to choose from.
_ Erica Werner