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House Poised to Crack Down on Health Insurers Next Week

Congressional Democrats may be stymied in its efforts to approve a sweeping health care reform bill but the House is poised to pass a modest version.

Next week, the House will vote to strip health care insurance providers of their antitrust exemption.

"This should be an easy one," said freshman Rep. Tom Perriello,D-Va., who co-sponsors the legislation with fellow frosh Rep. Betsy Markey, D-Colo.

"For too many years, (health insurance firms) have enjoyed monopoly protections, something enjoyed only by Major League Baseball," Perriello said.

The federal government has granted many health insurance companies antitrust exemptions since the mid-1940s. 

At a Capitol Hill press conference Friday, aides handed out mocked-up versions of a Monopoly game board titled "Health Care Monopoly." Once a player passes "Go" on the mimic game board, they could land on "$95,000 of Health Markets 'Highly Concentrated'" in place of where Baltic Avenue usually sits. Vermont Avenue was replaced with "In VA. Top Insurer Controls $50% of Market."

Despite the public relations gymnastics, Perriello promised that the legislation will be short and to the point.

"One page, front and back," he said, a marked contrast to the massive, nearly 2,000-page health care bill that totaled nearly 400,000 words. "We want a clean bill."

The legislation emerges as congressional Democrats scramble to find a legislative pathway to pass the comprehensive health care package. The House and Senate both adopted their own versions of the bill by the most narrow of margins. 

But the future of that measure is now in question in light of the election of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who swept away the filibuster-proof majority Senate Democrats needed to approve the bill. The antitrust exemption package could be the first of several "piecemeal" bills Democrats roll out in an effort to show the public that health care remains on the front burner. Or to serve as window dressing should efforts to approve the larger bill prove to be unfeasible.

"I think this bill makes sense no matter what else happens," said Perriello.

But House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has doubts about the bill.

"I'm beginning to wonder what the real purpose here is," Boehner said Thursday.

House leaders intend to bring the bill to the floor next week. Perriello says he hopes the legislation will have bipartisan support. But so far, no Republicans have signed on to the plan.

Boehner describes the antitrust exemption as "very narrow" and defended the practice.

"It allows (insurers) to share loss data so they can accurately predict their rates," Boehner said. "So I'm having concerns that without this ability, we're going to see rates go up because some of these insurers are not going to have enough data to predict what their losses are going to be."

The legislation would also prospectively include doctors and nurses who purchase medical malpractice coverage. And that's upset the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), which represents many firms that provide that insurance.

"We believe that sweeping (medical malpractice insurance companies) into this is completely misguided and misses the mark," PCI spokeswoman Jessica Hanson said.