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Industries Launch Defensive

The day after the Senate Finance Committee approved its massive health care legislation, Jody Dietel, an executive with WageWorks, a California-based benefits management company, flew to the nation’s capital to do damage control.

She is scheduled to meet today and Friday with key House staffers and lawmakers to prod them to reject a little-publicized provision in the Senate Finance bill. The measure caps at $2,500 annually the amount that employees can sock away for health care needs in flexible savings accounts.

Senate staffers say such accounts, which are not subject to taxes, encourage unnecessary health care spending.

“There is no evidence to support that in the industry,” said Dietel, executive director of a group called Save Flexible Spending Plans, which was formed by companies that manage these tax-advantaged accounts. She said limiting such accounts would make it harder for families to pay for medical needs often not covered by standard health insurance, such as their children’s braces or walkers for the old and disabled.

The group is just one of a multitude of industries and associations with a financial stake in health care reform that are escalating their lobbying or re-evaluating their strategies as they seek to influence the legislation as it moves into the next crucial phase. Democratic leaders are now melding two Senate and three House committee bills in preparation for floor votes in their respective chambers.

One health care consultant said a lot of people with interests in health care had high hopes for the Senate Finance blueprint. But many of them were disappointed, as evidenced from the flurry of criticism of the bill after the vote Tuesday.

“A lot of people around town are revisiting their strategies,” said the consultant, who predicted the lobbying on the health care measure will become “more aggressive” as the window for altering the legislation closes.

Already some well-heeled interests, such as the health insurance industry, have gone on the attack, running ads claiming the Finance Committee version will raise insurance premiums.

Also 30 unions took out full-page ads in newspapers Wednesday criticizing the Senate Finance version because it does not contain a public insurance option and would tax insurers that provide more expensive coverage.

But Andy Rosenberg, a Democratic lobbyist at Ogilvy Government Relations, said he did not believe that all health care interests will view it as productive to take such an aggressive approach and will be more likely to work behind the scenes to try to change the legislation.

“It is not a one-size-fits-all,” he said of the lobbying strategy.

Much of the lobbying efforts will be focused on the seven to 10 Senate Democratic moderates and Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who will be key to garnering the 60 votes needed to overcome any filibuster efforts.

“You get more bang for your buck trying to influence the Senate,” Rosenberg said.

At the same time, a number of industries that are unhappy with the Senate Finance bill are also targeting the House in the hopes of preventing provisions that they dislike from creeping into that chamber’s measure. That way, when negotiators meet in conference to resolve the differences between the House and Senate, there is a greater likelihood that the final version will include compromises that they can accept.

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