By DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON (AP) - A large group of House conservatives unveiled legislation Wednesday providing expanded tax breaks for consumers who purchase their own insurance and increasing the government funding for high-risk pools, the Republicans' first comprehensive alternative to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Under the proposal by the Republican Study Committee, individuals who purchase coverage approved for sale in their state could claim a deduction of $7,500 against their income and payroll taxes, regardless of the cost of the insurance. Families could deduct $20,000.
The RSC claims a membership of 175 members, about three-quarters of the House Republican rank and file. The bill's introduction comes at a time when the leadership has yet to advance any comprehensive alternative to the law Obama signed in 2010, even though lawmakers have voted more than 40 times on repealing part or all of it. The GOP vowed three years ago to "repeal and replace" the existing law.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the RSC chairman, said the group wanted an alternative "that actually lowered cost and increased access, and did it in a way that doesn't have the mandates and the taxes" that are part of what's come to be known as "Obamacare."
"We're going to be pushing to have a vote on the House floor" after going through regular legislative procedures, he said of the measure, which includes a full repeal of the law that Republicans have opposed from the start.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who led a small group that drafted the measure, said the tax deduction would ensure that individuals and families enjoy "the same buying power" as employers who are permitted to deduct the cost of coverage they provide to their workers.
He also said the commitment of $25 billion over 10 years to defray the cost of coverage for high-risk patients would ease a problem caused when funding provided under Obama's plan ran out. Premiums in the high-risk pools would be capped at twice the average cost of insurance sold in the state.
Individuals with pre-existing conditions who already have coverage would generally be permitted to shift existing insurance without fear of losing it.
The legislation also includes expanded access to health savings accounts, which are tax-preferred accounts used to pay medical expenses by consumers enrolled in high-deductible coverage plans.
The RSC legislation includes a number of proposals that Republicans long have backed to expand access and hold down the cost of health care, including features that permit companies to sell policies across state lines and that let small businesses join together to seek better rates from insurers.
In addition, awards for pain and suffering, emotional distress and similar noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases would be capped at $250,000, unless a state had a higher cap.
No overall cost estimates for the bill were available.
Officials said the legislation contains no provision to assure insurance coverage for millions of lower-income Americans who are scheduled under current law to be enrolled in Medicaid, a state-federal health care program for the poor.
Nor are there replacements for several of the requirements the current law imposes on insurance companies, including one that requires them to retain children up to the age of 26 on their parents' coverage plan and another barring lifetime limits on coverage.
Internal divisions have plagued Republicans this year as they struggle to produce alternatives to the Obama plan. Legislation backed by Cantor, R-Va., to increase funding for high-risk pools was pulled without a vote after some conservatives objected to improving "Obamacare" at a time when they want to repeal it.
Obama and Democrats frequently criticize Republicans for focusing so much attention on repeal efforts without coming up with an alternative.