Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, the standard bearer for universal health coverage during his more than four decades in the U.S. Senate and whose legislative accomplishments had a huge influence on the design on employee benefit plans, died Tuesday evening, August 25, more than a year after he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
“An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday, August 26.
His legislative successes in the employee benefits arena are numerous and significant. He was a driving force behind the passage of legislation in 1978 that requires health care plans to provide the same coverage for maternity and childbirth as other medical conditions, a change that expanded benefits for millions of women.
In 1996, he played a key role in the enactment of legislation that curbed the use of exclusions of pre-existing medical conditions in health plans. That law makes it easier for employees to change jobs without losing coverage for current medical conditions.
His decision several years ago to invite business groups, insurers and mental health organizations to work together and develop mental health care benefits parity legislation was the starting point that led to the passage of a parity bill last year.
The strong support that developed and held firm behind the measure Sen. Kennedy championed ultimately led backers of a parity bill passed by the House to drop a provision—one vehemently opposed by employers—that would have required group health care plans to provide coverage for any mental condition listed in the psychiatric industry’s compendium of mental disorders.
The measure that ultimately passed goes into effect next year and will require group health care plans to provide the same coverage for mental disorders as other medical conditions, ending widespread discriminatory design practices.
While known for his soaring oratory, his success was due to his ability to negotiate and to compromise. The enactment of the portability bill had much to do with Sen. Kennedy’s decision to accept a Republican provision to allow employers to offer medical savings accounts—the predecessor to health savings accounts.
In his last major public address, which he made at the Democratic National Convention a year ago in Denver, he briefly but eloquently described one of his great passions in his 46-year career in the Senate: the need to expand health insurance coverage.
He said there was “new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American—north, south, east and west; young, old—will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”
Because of his illness, Sen. Kennedy was not an active player in the debate and passage of sweeping health care reform legislation in July by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Senate panel he chaired.
Benefit lobbyists earlier said his illness was felt markedly as his successor, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, lacked Sen. Kennedy’s command of health care issues. Sen. Kennedy’s death could influence the outcome of the legislation, with the loss of a reform champion who also had the ability to hammer out compromises with opponents.