Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 | 12:42 p.m.
WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. John Ensign scored a victory in his pursuit of healthy lifestyle rewards with passage of his amendment to health care reform legislation that would offer deep discounts to those who quit smoking, lose weight or otherwise meet healthy milestones.
The Senate Finance Committee accepted Ensign’s amendment, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware, on a mostly bipartisan vote despite fierce opposition from the American Cancer Society and other public health groups who worry it would be punitive.
“Weight gain and unhealthy lifestyles that focus on smoking and lack of exercise have sky-rocketed our health care costs,” Ensign said in a statement after passage late Wednesday. “These costs could be lowered by focusing on what makes us healthy.”
Ensign is running a modest success rate as the committee moves through several of his 30 amendments.
Last week, the committee accepted his amendment to ensure that any savings from Medicare be retained for the Medicare program rather than diverted for other uses.
But the Republican senator has also suffered setbacks.
The committee rejected his attempt to block a proposed Medicaid expansion in Nevada and other states where the costs would exceed 1 percent of current costs for covering low-income residents.
The committee also rejected Ensign’s politically-tinged amendment to require any Obama administration health czar to withstand Senate confirmation – a Republican-led objection to the administration’s ability to skirt the confirmation process.
Today, Ensign came within one vote of passing an amendment that would have exempted fines for those who fail to get health insurance. Under the legislation, all Americans would be required to carry insurance – just as many states require drivers to have auto insurance. Those who don’t would face fines. Ensign’s amendment would have limited the fines only to those individuals earning above $200,000 annually.
The healthy lifestyles amendment passed on a vote 19-4, with a handful of Democrats opposed.
It would allow employers to offer steep discounts of up to 30 percent for workers who lead healthy lifestyles – with discounts of up to 50 percent allowed at the discretion of the Health and Human Services secretary.
Currently, employers can only offer discounts of up to 20 percent.
More than 30 groups, including the American Cancer Society, unions and public health organizations wrote two letters to the committee urging a no vote – saying the discounts would punish those who are unable to meet the milestones with higher insurance policies.
Ensign has vowed to offer a stronger amendment that would offer up to 50 percent discounts once the legislation moves to the Senate floor for debate.