Senators push bipartisan state healthcare waiver

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democrat and a Republican teamed up in the Senate on Thursday to offer legislation that would give states the flexibility to implement their own healthcare approaches when the federal overhaul goes into full effect in 2014.

The proposal by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Scott Brown moves up the date when states can apply for waivers from the federal law in order to implement their own approaches.

The law, which passed in March, currently allows states to apply for waivers in 2017.

Under the Wyden and Brown proposal, states could apply for an exemption from some requirements of the reform law -- including the mandate that everyone purchase insurance and the employer penalty for not providing coverage -- if they offer an alternative that is considered at least as effective and affordable.

“States shouldn’t be forced by the federal government to adopt a one-size-fits all healthcare plan. Each state’s health care needs are different,” Brown, who opposed the federal overhaul, said in a statement.

“Our bill provides flexibility and allows states like Massachusetts to opt out of portions of the healthcare law,” said Brown, whose home state of Massachusetts has its own comprehensive healthcare plan.

Republicans have promised to make the healthcare overhaul, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda that was strongly opposed by health insurers, a prime target for repeal or modification in the next Congress.

The waiver plan is the first concrete proposal to amend provisions of the healthcare bill but it is expected to be just one of many healthcare proposals competing for a hearing in the new Congress.

Health insurer Humana projected on Thursday sharply lower profit next year driven by lower margins in its coverage plan for Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly.

Wyden was a supporter of the federal healthcare overhaul and authored the provision in the current bill that lets states seek waivers beginning in 2017.

But he said states like Massachusetts and his home state of Oregon, which also has its own alternative healthcare programs, might have to abandon at least temporarily their state-based initiatives if they have to implement the federal law before getting waivers.

“Bumping up the start date means that states can focus on ways to make the new health law work at its best from day one,” Wyden said in a statement.

Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Bill Trott