WASHINGTON — Health insurance companies, facing the threat of a government health plan, offered on Tuesday to reduce rates for millions of women and accept close federal regulation of their industry.
The higher premiums now affect 5.7 million women, many of them self-employed workers who must buy their own coverage.
Insurance companies are trying to head off the creation of a government health plan that would compete with them to enroll middle-class workers and their families. President Barack Obama and many Democrats favor such a plan, but the companies say it would drive them out of business. Employer groups are also leery, afraid that a public plan would entice young, healthy workers by offering lower premiums.
"We are not asking people to trust us. We are asking people to trust government," Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, told a Senate panel that is crafting sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation's $2.5 trillion health care system.
Although the bill won't be written for weeks, insurers and other interest groups are trying to shape it now.
Instead of a government plan as a check on their industry, insurers are offering to accept a series of consumer protections that they say would add up to a fairer marketplace and cut into the ranks of the 50 million uninsured.
Senate Finance Committee leaders want to bring a bill to the Senate floor this summer. The broad outlines will follow Obama's campaign proposal, which builds on the current system of shared responsibility among employers, government and individuals.
Most Americans — men and women — are covered through employer plans, which are prohibited from charging higher premiums because of gender, poor health or other factors. Only about 9 percent purchase their own health insurance. It's in this group that women face higher rates. That's because health care costs for women tend to go up during childbearing years.
Insurers have already offered to stop denying coverage to sick people and to end the practice of charging higher premiums to those with a history of health problems. In exchange, the industry wants Congress to require all Americans to carry health insurance.