Houston Pushing Health Coverage

The city of Houston is trying to set an example for others regarding health insurance. The mayor announced a 'Pay or Play' program that will increase health care coverage for employees working on city contracts. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports.

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It's a problem the region has been facing for some time, high numbers of people with out health insurance. Houston Mayor Bill White is asking council to approve a new program that would require certain contractors doing business with the city to have health insurance for their employees. The Pay or Play Program provides two options.

"For certain city contractors with larger contracts with full-time employees, we expect them to either offer health insurance or pay an amount."

White says companies not offering health insurance need to be accountable for the cost. Memorial Hermann Healthcare System CEO Dan Wolterman is also the incoming chair for the Greater Houston Partnership.

"From an economic point of view the cost of the uninsured on every employer's premium that they pay for their employees averages about $2,000 extra per year due to the uninsured costs that are passed on to them through these higher premiums."

Wolterman says he'll be looking at the possibility of Memorial Hermann adopting a similar policy and also encourage the Greater Houston Partnership to look at it as the program develops with the city.

City contractors who opt to play would choose a health plan suited for their business with the employer contribution being $150 per month per employee. Workers could pay no more than half of the monthly cost. Health Policy Assistant Director Phyllis Epps:

"As it is structured the policy would affect approximately 44 to 45 percent of the number of contracts but it would affect approximately 88 percent of the contract dollars total value of contract dollars in circulation."

City officials point out that a majority of contractors do already offer health insurance, but this proposal would level the playing field for those who bid on city contracts. Officials say businesses that did not offer health insurance do not take that cost into consideration on bids. This plan would require them to do so.

Those who opted to pay would be required to contribute one dollar per hour worked by employees on contracts. Epps says they are still working out how those funds will be used. One idea is to have health providers apply for the funds.

"These are providers that service primarily persons without insurance living in Houston. At the other end of the spectrum there's the prospect of contributing those funds towards an insurance type product geared toward working Houstonians lacking insurance."

Houston City Council is expected to take up the item at tomorrow's/today's meeting. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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