Thank you, Chairwoman Snowe, for calling this important hearing today and for extending courtesies to our colleagues, Senators Lincoln and Durbin and Senator Talent, to join us for this important discussion. We welcome you here today and thank you for your special interest in working with us to find solutions to health care access and affordability issues for small businesses.

I also want to thank our witnesses for sharing their time and talents with us today – especially State Auditor Morrison who has joined us from Montana and Bill Lindsay from Colorado who is representing the National Small Business Association. And even though he has not traveled as far, a special thanks goes to Len Nichols of the New America Foundation for agreeing to share his expert thoughts with us once again. It’s great to have you back, Len.

The issues we are addressing today are of critical importance to this nation. Health insurance premiums continue to rise faster than inflation or wages, and have grown at double-digit increases for the past four years. Since 2000, premiums for family coverage have increased 59 percent, compared with inflation growth of 9.7 percent and wage growth of 12.4 percent.

Small businesses are hit particularly hard. Some have reported their premiums increasing by more than 70 percent in one year. As a result, the number of small businesses in 2004 that offered health benefits to their workers is only 63 percent, down from 68 percent in previous years. By contrast, 99 percent of businesses with 200 or more employees offer health benefits.

Of the 45 million uninsured Americans, 60 percent (27 million) are small business owners, their employees, and their families. This is unacceptable in America.

For nearly two years, I had the privilege of traveling all across this great nation to speak with Americans of every stripe about issues that were most important to them. Time and time again, our conversations turned to health care and the need for solutions to bring down the rising costs and to guarantee better access to coverage.

I could see the despair in their eyes lift away when I spoke of my pledge to ensure that everyone had access to the same health plan that Members of Congress give themselves. When I spoke to the self-employed and small business owners, I took special delight in explaining that my plan would not only allow them access to the range of plan choices and consumer protections offered through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, but also would give them affordable options through refundable tax credits and a federal reinsurance plan that would reduce premiums for everyone.

These ideas are real solutions – not because I proposed them, but because they work. The relief is real. Independent academic analysis found that health care proposals such as the ones I advanced during the Presidential campaign would cover 95 percent of all Americans (99 percent of all children) and would reduce health care premiums by at least 10 percent for every family. Sure there was a cost to it – as there is with any new programs we advocate in Washington – but the test is whether we are willing to give voice to our values and explain the choices Americans must make at defining moments such as these: do we continue to give huge tax cuts to the wealthiest among us, or do we provide for the common health of our nation and band together to solve these health care access and affordability problems once and for all?

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of conversations I was privileged to have with a cross-section of America, I would say, resolutely, the answer is, “Yes. Stop playing politics with health care and provide us with some real answers.”

We have that opportunity today. Unfortunately, the Administration and many of my Republican colleagues refuse to entertain any small business health proposal other than their favored AHPs.

I have come to believe that AHPs simply stand for Absolute Hocus Pocus.

Association Health Plans are a cynical and dangerous game that would cause premiums to rise for the vast majority of small businesses and their employees; would offer no help to the uninsured (actually might even raise the uninsured rolls by an additional 1 million); would erode important benefits and consumer protections that currently exist in the regulation of insurance products; and would leave consumers at risk for unpaid claims as the result of plan failures, insolvency, and even fraud.

That is why over 1,300 national and local organizations have spoken out against AHPs. It’s nearly impossible to find an Attorney General, Governor, or Insurance Commissioner of either party that has not gone on record in opposition to this plan. Even our U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, wrote a letter to Congress encouraging us to bypass this ill-conceived plan when he was the Governor of Utah.

If we truly want to “solve the small business health care crisis” and if we really want to engage in a dialogue of “alternatives for lowering costs and covering the uninsured,” then I welcome a vigorous discussion about not only AHPs but also the ideas I advanced on the campaign; legislation Senators Durbin and Lincoln have already introduced; and additional legislative proposals I am currently drafting with the Democratic Caucus to bring a more complete picture to this on-going policy discussion.

I agree that the time for us to act is now. I am pleased that we are having this hearing today to explore these important issues. But I want to talk about more than just Absolute Hocus Pocus. I want us to find real solutions to these very real problems and begin to forge a coalition that intends to address these issues once and for all.

Once again, I welcome the testimony that we are about to hear, and welcome a fresh beginning to this important debate.