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AS THE 105TH CONGRESS nears an end, we think legislators' handling of employee benefits proposals during the session generated more pluses than minuses.
On the plus side, Congress for the second consecutive session passed legislation that peels away the layers of red tape that needlessly complicate and increase the cost of administering corporate pension plans.
Also on the plus side, legislators opened the Medicare program to increased competition by allowing more private health care plans -- such as preferred provider organizations -- to compete for Medicare patients. Similarly, through passage of the so-called Medicare + Choice legislation in 1997, Congress put an end to an irrational payment system that kept HMOs and other health care plans out of the Medicare market in many parts of the country.
Another plus was approval of bills giving new tax breaks for employer-provided mass transit benefits, which not only helps the environment but also was a benefit much appreciated by many workers.
Perhaps the biggest plus, though, was lawmakers' inaction on several legislative initiatives.
Only a year ago, the odds seemed high that Congress, without much thought or consideration, was going to rush passage of so-called patient protection legislation that would have opened up employer-provided health plans to the full fury of the tort litigation system.
That effort died -- amid highly effective lobbying by employers and insurers -- as did later patient protection bills so hastily drafted that we shudder to think of the problems they could have caused if enacted.
Just as Congress let patient protection legislation die, it also didn't give any attention to a Clinton administration initiative that would have lowered the eligibility age for Medicare. Putting aside the terrible public policy of encouraging individuals to retire at earlier ages, that proposal would have put yet more financial pressure on a Medicare program that may be only a decade or so away from insolvency.
Regrettably, though, there are minuses as well. Legislation that would have expanded on previously passed pension simplification measures was introduced too late to gain serious congressional attention and failed to move out of committees.
Similarly, Congress, after a few cursory hearings, seemed to lose interest in examining ways to shore up the Social Security program. The importance of ensuring the future solvency of Social Security -- by far the largest government entitlement program -- can't be overstated. We think it is far better to address future funding problems now and not when the program is on the edge of bankruptcy.
With the 105th session of Congress now ending and elections fast approaching, we don't think it is too soon for employers to think of benefit issues that should be on lawmakers' agenda next year.
For example, the raft of HMOs withdrawing from the Medicare + Choice program should be a message to Congress that the 1997 reforms, while well-intentioned, need revision.
At the same time, with the continuing decline of defined benefit pension plans, legislators clearly need to do more to encourage employers to offer and maintain these plans. Several bills introduced late in the session are good starting points for congressional consideration next year.
Employer involvement is key. There is no question that a highly effective lobbying campaign by the business community was a factor in the death of most of the patient protection bills. Employers can't assume, though, that these proposals won't be resurrected again, and they must again be prepared to resist them.
Similarly, legislative initiatives -- such as pension simplification -- that employers support won't get serious consideration unless employers weigh in as soon as the session begins in January.