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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Self-Insurance Institute of America Inc. is calling on its members to help lobby against attacks on their professions.

The association hopes that enlisting its membership will give additional muscle to its efforts to thwart lawmakers' attempts to make changes to the employer-based system of providing health care. Some changes being considered could have a significant impact on the livelihood of SIIA members.

"Having a full-time lobbyist is important, and SIIA has four of them," said Bryan B. Davenport, a Franklin, Ind., attorney who is vp of the SIIA's government relations and public affairs committee. But also enlisting the group's members and their employer clients in a grass-roots lobbying campaign "is far more effective," he added.

Those efforts are needed, he emphasized, because attacks on the employer-based system of providing health care are "getting more than a little scary."

Mr. Davenport recalled recent remarks by Rep. Harris W. Fawell, R-Ill., who told SIIA government relations and public affairs committee members that "on a scale of 10, the threat emanating from Washington that the employer-based system will be eliminated is at least an eight."

Eliminating the delivery system for health care would mean the SIIA's members, many of which are third-party administrators, would be looking for other lines of work, Mr. Davenport stressed.

Some lawmakers want to replace the current system with one that will give health care consumers more say in their health care choices.

Those lawmakers are considering drafting legislation that would allow employees to take as income the money employers currently pay for their health care. The legislation would put employees in charge of purchasing their own coverage, with an income tax credit available to blunt the tax effects of the additional income.

"There is the potential for a bill next year," George Pantos, SIIA's Washington-based counsel, said in a telephone interview after the SIIA conference. He said Rep. William M. Thomas, R-Calif., and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., have indicated they might support such a measure.

"When you think about it," he added, "what that would do to our industry would be very, very interesting. And what it might do to America's health might be very, very interesting."

Some Americans, especially young, healthy ones, are going to be tempted to spend the money on something other than health care, Mr. Davenport suggested.

"But if you talk to the congressmen, they have not received from anybody, in sufficient quantity, the message that that is not a good idea," he said. "They think that this is empowering the individual."

The SIIA continues to battle attacks against the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the federal law that pre-empts state regulation of employer-sponsored pension and health care plans. The association also works at the state level to make sure legislation onerous to its members doesn't slip by.

Mr. Davenport said TPAs have a great opportunity to get the attention of lawmakers regarding such issues by galvanizing their employer clients.

Coalitions can be formed and briefed on the issues that need attention. Meetings can then be scheduled with lawmakers who can affect the outcome of legislation.

Mr. Davenport emphasized that access to lawmakers is through their staffs. A scheduler can arrange a meeting, but he cautioned members not to "try to set the parameters," such as when the meeting should be held and how long it should run.

The importance of staffers should not be overlooked when lobbying, Mr. Davenport advised. "These people are incredibly important. They draft legislation, they attend meetings, they carry messages, they set policy and they work 20 hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end."

Staffers "are decision-makers," he pointed out. "And they can change a congressperson's mind. So don't overlook them. Adopt them. . .They are there to listen, report, assimilate information and create outcomes. And if you're not in their dialogue stream, we've missed the boat."

Mr. Davenport urged SIIA members to use letters, visits and telephone calls to inform lawmakers about issues important to the membership.

Legislators keep track of how much correspondence is received on issues as a way to gauge their importance, Mr. Davenport noted. He said a letter should be succinct, a single page containing bullet points that highlight concerns.

A phone call won't be answered by a lawmaker, but a message will be relayed, he said. "They have an obligation to read them, and I think most of them take their obligation seriously."

When considering a visit, remember that "you don't have to just visit a congressman in the District of Columbia," Mr. Davenport said. Most lawmakers go home at least for weekends, and they often schedule meetings while there.