Moderate Senate Democrats Seek Alternatives to Individual Mandate

In a thread to an earlier post on this blog, reader Curt Cella wrote ” I think if I heard just one Democrat admit that there might – MIGHT! – be some issues worth fixing with PPACA I’d feel a burst of optimism.” And he’s not alone. The sausage-making process that led to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was even messier than usual. The result: legislation that is in dire need of fixing and a lot of people pessimistic about the future of health insurance.

Any changes to the new health care reform law, however, will require bipartisan support. Otherwise what emerges from the House will be defeated in the Senate and vice versa.  Which makes Curt’s wish especially meaningful. Unless some Democrats start calling for substantial changes to the PPACA (and repealing the 1099 reporting requirements in the law doesn’t count as substantial — worthwhile, yes, but not substantial) nothing important is going to change.

Fortunately, those waiting for “just one Democrat” to admit that the PPACA needs fixing are in for some good news. There are at least four Democratic Senators and one liberal columnist seeking meaningful change in the PPACA. The fix they are focusing on is the laws requirement that all consumers obtain health care coverage by 2014 (the individual mandate).

ABC News recently reported that a group of Democratic Senators are looking for alternatives to the individual mandate. (This is a provision in the law that requires all Americans to obtain health care coverage by 2014 or pay a modest penalty). As one of those Democrats, newly elected Senator Joe Manchin puts it “I’ve always had a concern and a problem with the mandate, that we were forcing it, basically saying by the law of the land you have to buy the product. But on the other hand, I know that’s been the lynchpin. I’m looking for flexibility any way I can.” Other Senators mentioned as engaged in this search for an alternative to the individual mandate are Senators Ben Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester. ABC News describes them as seeking to “improve” the PPACA, not repeal it.

Needless to say, liberals are a bit unhappy with these moderate-to-conservative lawmakers. The Senators are not backing down, however. For evidence, take a look at an exchange between MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and Senator McCaskell on the individual mandate (the meat of the interview begins at about the 1 minute, 40 second mark).

That there are at least four Democrats looking for an alternative to the PPACA’s approach to the individual mandate is important. Together with the 47 Republicans they represent a majority of the Senate. Yes, Republicans in the last Congress proved that in the wacky world of the Senate a working majority requires 60 votes, but having a simple majority is no small accomplishment. If nothing else it puts pressure on others in the Democratic Caucus, especially moderates like Senators Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad, to join in the fun.

Not all liberals are criticizing the Senators searching for alternatives to the individual mandate. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein notes that “[r]eplacing the individual mandate wouldn’t be particularly hard” and then offers four suggestions. (For the record, I’ve offered my own individual mandate alternatives in previous posts).

Mr. Klein fixing the individual mandate as good public policy and winning politics for Democrats. “The danger …  is not that the law does get changed, but that it doesn’t. That the GOP won’t let it thrive and the Democrats won’t let it die and so it just limps along.”  Improving the PPACA makes it more difficult to repeal the law and more likely the legislation will be implemented in a constructive manner.

Of course, the individual mandate is just one part of the law that needs fixing, justifying a mere “burst of optimism.” Moderate Democrats should also look at teaming with Republicans to refine the medical loss ratio provision, make premium subsidies and tax credits available outside the exchanges, and enact meaningful medical cost containment.  Changes like these would justify long-lasting optimism.

Second Take on 2010 Election Results and Health Care Reform

The 2010 mid-term elections were one of those elections. One that changes everything … forever. We haven’t had one of these game changing elections since, well, 2008. Which apparently defines “forever” as meaning “two years.” So before the next tsunami/landslide/other metaphor for lots of changes election in 2012, what will be the 112th Congress’ impact on health care reform? What follows is my take on what can and/or should happen in the next two years along with some broader political observations. Like the predictions available 24×7 on Talk Radio and cable “news” shows, they may be wildly off-the-mark. I also may change them at any time (consistency not being a high priority among broadcast pundits). Hopefully, this perspective will provide some grist for your own thinking about the future. Please feel free to share your predictions and observations – just remember to keep your comments civil.

1. Who Will Lead? While we assume we know who the major players will be for the next two years, we don’t know for sure. Yes, President Barack Obama will remain president. And it is all but certain that today’s Minority Leader, John Boehner, will become Speaker John Boehner. While some talk of a challenge from conservatives against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that’s possible, but unlikely. With his come from behind victory Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would be expected to remain in that post. Then again, he bears substantial responsibility for the heavy hit his caucus just took. A challenge to Senator Reid is not beyond the realm of the possible, it’s simply not likely. Then there’s current Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Dethroned Speakers have retired from Congress before (think Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert). Speaker Pelosi could seek to serve the Democratic Caucus as Minority Leader, but there’s no guarantee she’d be elected. We’ll know more in a few weeks, but there could be some new players in leadership roles. This could change the tenor and tone of negotiations. Then again, nothing might change at all.

2. Why Republicans May Let PPACA Stand. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be amended. Whether those changes are substantial or not is in the hands of newly empowered Congressional Republicans – and, as noted below, a few Democrats). The GOP, both from ideological disagreements with President Obama and political calculation gave no support to the Administration’s major legislative goals. Unified Republican caucuses in both Chambers of Congress worked to deny the President any support – at times even when the President was promoting or at least open to GOP positions. And they were rewarded with a political landslide of historical proportions. With 21 of the 33 Senate seats up for election held by Democrats and the Presidency on the line in 2012, why mess with success? (OK, besides a desire to solve problems). If the strategy is to deny the President accomplishments upon which he can campaign for reelection, then “fixing” his flawed health care reform plan is counterproductive. Better to let things remain as they are then hope to ride displeasure with the PPACA to majorities in Congress and a Republican President in the White House. Is this a cynical perspective? Perhaps. But given the promise of “no compromise” from Representative Boehner and Senator McConnell’s statement that Republican’s “single most important thing we want to achieve is for president Obama to be a one-term president” perhaps not.

3. Why Republicans May Improve the PPACA. Then again, the Republicans may decide to fix a lot of what’s broken in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And even add some needed additional reforms to the package. The “just say no” political strategy carries some heavy risk. Republicans already have a worse “favorability gap than Democrats. (Exit polls indicate that 43 percent of voters have a favorable view of Democrats while 53 percent view them unfavorably while 41 percent viewed Republicans favorably and 53 percent viewed them unfavorably). Other polls show the public wants Republicans and Democrats to work together to get things done. Now that they have power, the public may punish the GOP if they fail to deliver results. “Fixing” health care reform would demonstrate Republicans understand their responsibility to move beyond gridlock. Some changes will be easy; others much harder. But a vibrant debate – and some political compromises – could also enable Republicans to achieve long held goals like medical malpractice reform and improve the cost containment provisions of the new health care reform law. At least one can hope.

4. Vice President Biden May Determine the Fate of Health Care Reform. When the dust settles, the Senate Democratic Caucus will have 53 members (assuming Senator Pat Murray’s lead in Washington continues to grow) while there will be 47 Senate Republicans (which  recognizes that whoever Alaska elected to the Senate will caucus with Republicans). However, one member of the Democratic Caucus is Senator Joe Lieberman, a conservative Independent who frequently sides with Republicans. And with a tough reelection campaign facing him in 2012 he might switch over to Republicans with the right inducement. Then there’s the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. He too often sides with Republicans. Concerned about his reelection in 2012 he too might support Republican efforts to amend the PPACA. Enter stage right Governor and future Senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin, who may prove to be even more conservative than Senator Nelson. Governor Manchin has said that he “favors repealing things that are bad in [the PPACA]” and describes President Obama’s health care reform as “overreaching.” If these three members of the Democratic caucus – and only these three – join a united Republican effort to change major aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the Senate would deadlock, leaving Vice President Biden to cast the decisive vote. Who says being Vice President is a boring job?

5. Be Careful What You Wish For. If gridlock is avoided, what might change in the PPACA? The low-hanging fruit involves lowering administrative burdens imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that have little value. Examples include provisions impacting W-2s and 1099s (In a press conference today President Obama talked about the need to reduce the burden of the PPACA’s 1099 requirements). Republicans might want to make it easier to achieve grandfather status and thus enable some employers and consumers to avoid certain requirements of the PPACA. They will push for medical malpractice reform and may offer some additional measures to control costs. And Republicans could (and should) make the premium subsidies created by the PPACA available for use outside of the government exchanges. This would create more competition and choice for consumers and employers, a cause the GOP could easily champion. Republicans are unlikely to do away with the medical loss ratio requirements included in the health care reform law, but they might redefine elements of it. For example, they could recognize the wisdom of excluding broker commissions from the MLR calculation altogether (OK, this may be wishful thinking). Republicans are unlikely to seek to eliminate exchanges – they have been a part of the GOP’s health care reform proposals for years. They will seek to do away with the individual mandate, even though doing so would result in skyrocketing premiums. In other words, some improvements pushed by Republicans could make health care reform worse.

6. Obama Has Already Won. Here’s an observations folks may not like, but if you think about it, when it comes to health care reform, President Obama has already won. No one that I’m aware of is calling for a return to the status quo. Even the Republican campaign mantra was to “repeal and replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yes, his particular reforms may cost the President a second term and certainly cost some lawmakers their job, but these are short-term impacts. Long term President Obama accomplished what predecessors of both parties tried and failed to do – pass substantial health care reform. Even if Republicans could repeal the new law (and they can’t given their inability to muster veto-proof majorities) they would need to replace it with something. And that something will not be a return to America’s health care system circa 2008. You may not like the Administration’s reforms. Those reforms may need reforming. But it cannot be denied that President Obama delivered on his campaign promise to forever change America’s health care system.

6. Change Will Change. There has been a lot of discussion on this blog – some of it quite heated – concerning the impact of the PPACA in general and on brokers in particular. As I’ve noted frequently, the health care reform law itself is not the end reforming health care. The PPACA is only the start. Much of the law remains to be interpreted by federal and state regulators and then those regulations will in turn be interpreted by employers, carriers and others. Even if Congress gridlocks on major revisions, some change to the PPACA will emerge from Congress in the next two years. And Republicans in the House will certainly seek to impact implementation of the law through through Congress’ budget and oversight powers. The PPACA is health care reform that needs reforming. My hope is that we get those changes. But whether they’re the right changes or not, there will be change.

There’s one thing certain about the 2010 election results: they assure an interesting 2011.

Senate Likely to Move Forward with Health Care Reform Absent a Public Option

Liberal Democratic Senators appear to be sliding down a slippery slope, but one that will likely move health care reform to a conference committee.

In the beginning was a robust public option: a government-run health care program to compete with private carriers that would pay doctors, hospitals and other providers a small percentage above Medicare’s reimbursement levels (which for many services are below those medical providers’ actual cost). Moderate and conservative Democrats balked, claiming a public option paying Medicare-like rates would decimate the private market.

So liberal Democrats offered a compromise: the public health insurance plan would negotiate with medical providers as private carriers do. Never mind that this approach undermines the rationale for a public option – driving down health care costs. At least it preserved a government-run plan. Still no love. Moderate and conservative Democrats balked, claiming the government-plan would still have an unfair competitive advantage in the market, driving private health plans out of business.

So a group of Senators negotiated another health care reform compromise. The Gang of 10 (five liberals and five moderates) proposed turning to the Office of Personnel Management to administer a health care program involving private carriers in a manner modeled after the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (which is the program that covers members of Congress). They also proposed allowing individuals 55 through 64 to buy into the Medicare program. At first the Gang of 10’s compromise seemed to have some wind at its back. But Senator Joe Lieberman announced his opposition to the Medicare buy-in concept (a proposal he previously had supported). And on Monday, after a caucus of Democratic Senators concluded, the party’s leadership in the chamber all but announced the Gang of 10’s compromise proposal was off the table. Which means liberals face an uncomfortable choice: see health care reform fail or remove the public option and push legislation through the Senate – then hope they can improve it in the conference committee.

While this result was far from certain, it isn’t much of surprise either. The fate of health care reform has long been in the hands of moderate and conservative Democratic Senators. Republicans have been united and vocal in their opposition. Announcing early in the debate that they could never support any health care reform plan that contained provisions core to the Democratic platform is not a high percentage approach to being invited to negotiate on the legislation. So their 40 votes have long been off the table. That meant that the discussion would take place exclusively among the 58 Democrats and the two Independent Senators who caucus with them.

And that’s what’s happening. And that’s why the Senate is likely to pass a health care reform bill before Christmas leaving it up to a House-Senate conference committee to come up with the final version of the reform bill. Liberals won’t be happy with the process. There will be a lot of complaining by their supporters that Democrats are failing to deliver on meaningful reform. But the reality is that moderates like Senators Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln are as much a part of the Democratic party as Senators Jay Rockefeller and Charles Schumer. Whatever emerges from Congress will need to be acceptable to all Democrats. not just the most liberal. Or the loudest.

What all this also means is that the real work of drafting comprehensive health care reform legislation is about to get underway. It’s been a long strange trip, but that’s American politics in 2009 – and 2010, too.

Medicare Buy-in Compromise Unraveling?

Nothing lasts forever … not even health care reform compromises. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to come out with its analysis of the latest proposal – replacing a the creation of a new government-run health plan (the controversial “public option”) with a program in which Americans 55-64 could buy Medicare coverage. However, it’s looking like even if the CBO determines the idea makes financial sense, the votes to go forward with the proposal there doesn’t seem to be enough votes around for it to move forward. Which means the public option remains the big make-or-break element of health care reform in the Senate.

Only a few days ago, along with the idea of empowering the Office of Personnel Management to organize a coverage program, the Medicare buy-in compromise  seemed to be the solution to breaking the public option impasse. Now the idea seems to be losing steam.

First, doctors and hospital groups came out in opposition to the Medicare buy-in compromise, with the Washington Post reporting them as claiming the approach “would be financially untenable and would jeopardize access to health-care services for millions of Americans.”  The medical and hospital groups are concerned, according to the Washington Post, “because the program pays providers at much lower rates than private insurers, and because older Americans are the greatest consumers of health-care services.”

And then two conservative members of the Democratic caucus indicated their disapproval of the Medicare buy-in. According to the Associated Press, Senator Joe Lieberman, who had originally sounded open to the idea, now considers it “a bad deal for taxpayers and the deficit.” And the AP quotes Senator Ben Nelson as saying “I’m concerned that it’s the forerunner of single-payer, maybe even more directly than the public option.”

So while, as the Washington Post and others are reporting, the President Barack Obama and many Democrats are praising the compromise, the fact is, the Democrat’s need 100 percent buy-in by their caucus to pass any bill. (Yes, it’s possible Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins might cross party lines and vote for a bill, but it’s hard to see how these Republican Senators could support any legislation conservative Democrats like Senators Lieberman and Nelson could not).

Democrats are trying to dodge a nasty choice: dropping the public option from health care reform. Liberals have made inclusion of a public option their litmus test for meaningful reform. As the liberal blog Daily Kos put it this past summer, the public option is the compromise progressives are willing to make between a single payer system and the status quo.

In the end, however, liberals will need to decide whether the absence of a public option is enough to get them to walk away from reform. Because there does not seem to be any way they will obtain 60 votes in the Senate for a bill that includes a new government-run health plan. My guess? Liberals will complain bitterly, but ultimately vote for a bill without a public option. Health care reform has been on their agenda for decades and they have moved the issue further through Congress  than ever before. To abandon it now would set back health care reform for at least a decade if not longer. Failure would hand Republicans a huge stick to use against them in the 2010 elections.

Passing reform, even reform liberals perceive as too weak, provides a foundation for future efforts. This might seem like a hollow victory for many progressives, but it would be a victory for them nonetheless. And I just don’t see them trading even a hollow victory for a hard defeat.

Devil Dwells in the Details of Health Care Reform Compromise

A critical health care reform compromise seems to have emerged from negotiations between five liberal and five moderate Democratic Senators (the so-called “Gang of 10”). They are putting forward a compromise that eliminates (or at least postpones) the creation of a government-run health plan while allowing Americans 55 through 64 years of age to purchase Medicare and tasking the Office of Personnel management to administer a program offering coverage through non-profit, private health plans. Of course, as with anything as complicated as health care reform, a solution or compromise on one issue creates new ones elsewhere – think of trying to flatten a partially inflated balloon. Push down on one part and the air pops up in another.

As I noted the other day, expanding Medicare is an idea that appeals to both liberals and conservative Democrats. For example, former Governor Howard Dean, a leading and vocal advocate for a government-run health plan called the compromise “a positive step forward” on the CBS’ “The Early Show.” Meanwhile, Senator Joe Lieberman, who had threatened to support a filibuster of any health care reform plan containing a public option signaled the compromise might be acceptable. According to MSNBC Senator Lieberman said he was “’open- minded’ about the deal” and indicated he was encouraged by what he’s heard so far about the compromise. In other words, he’s pretty much on board.

Senator Reid will be submitting the Gang of 10’s compromise to the Congressional Budget Office where its financial impact will be determined. In the interim, it’s worthwhile asking some questions about the impact of elements of the health care reform compromise as it is in the details that the devil likes to linger.

For example, how will allowing 55 through 64 years old enroll in Medicare impact private health insurance premiums?  It is widely accepted that Medicare often pays doctors, hospitals and other providers less than the actual cost of the care they provide. For example, “payment levels for hospital services under Medicare are equal to only about 71 percent of what is paid by private health plans for the same service,” according to a study by the Lewin Group. Medical care providers make up for the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by charging more to their insured patients. This cost shifting is reflected in higher health insurance premiums.

To the extent the 55-through-64 year olds signing up for Medicare previously were insured by private carriers the amount of dollars being shifted to private insurance will increase and the number of privately insured consumers absorbing this cost will decrease. The result, upward pressure on health insurance premiums.

However, to the extent that these new enrollees were previously uninsured it will reduce the cost of private coverage. Right now virtually all the costs incurred by the uninsured are shifted to private carriers. If Medicare pays for 71 percent of these expenses that’s 71 percent less in losses providers need to shift to their insured patients. How these two consequences balance out is as yet unknown – and may not be knowable until after the fact. But lawmakers should be aware of these consequences.

There’s another detail of the compromise potentially offering affordable housing to the devil.  Alison, a regular reader of this blog, pointed out a provision that would require private carriers to spend at least 90 percent of premiums on medical care. Forcing carriers to spend a high percentage of premiums on medical costs is one of those proposals that: 1) sounds great; and 2) emerges with the regularity of ground hogs in Pennsylvania in February. And it’s a seriously flawed proposal.

Consider: requiring carriers to maintain a specified medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) could reduce the availability of low cost plans. It costs just as much to process claims for a plan costing $300 per month as it does for one with a monthly cost of $100. If these fixed costs amount to $15, they represent 15 percent of the lower cost plan’s premium, but only 5 percent of the premiums for the more expensive plan. Need to get your medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) to 10 percent? Raise your premiums. It’s counter-intuitive, but do the math and you’ll see the danger.

There are several other potential dangers from requiring a high and specific medical loss ratio. Economic swings or flu outbreaks (or the lack of expected flue outbreaks) can greatly alter the percentage spent on claims. So can government-imposed mandates to cover certain conditions. Private carriers pay taxes and need lawyers to deal with government regulation. These costs are beyond their control, but they tend not to increase over time (taxes and regulations have a nasty habit of piling up), meaning these uncontrollable costs are likely to absorb funds needed for truly administrative costs – like answering the phone. Answering the phone, of course, speaks to customer service, a likely victim of mandated loss ratios.

And setting the medical loss ratio at 90 percent would certainly eliminate broker commissions. Brokers would either need to charge fees directly to clients (if that’s permitted) or go away, leaving consumers bereft of independent advocates and counselors.

The good news is that just because a provision is in the compromise doesn’t mean it will be part of the final legislation. Or that it can’t be improved upon before reaching President Obama’s desk. When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an 85 percent medical loss ratio in his 1997 health care reform plan, lawmakers recognized the potential pitfalls. The provision was amended to make clear, for example, that taxes and disease management programs would be part of the claims side of the ledger. Eventually a workable compromise was was reached. (The bill did not pass the Legislature, however).

Of course, fixing California’s version of a mandated medical loss ratio didn’t happen of its own accord. Many interested parties, including the California Association of Health Underwriters, expended considerable effort to educate lawmakers about the implications of this provision. An effort of similar magnitude will be required to make sure that the devil is unable to take up residence in the details of the health care reform compromise shaping up in Washington.

New Elements Added to Health Care Reform Debate

I haven’t been writing much of late. The Senate debate has simply been too predictable to merit much comment. The partisan attacks could have been scripted months ago. The votes unsurprising, and the difficulty Democratic Leaders face in fashioning a 60-vote majority is to be expected.

Consider: Republicans charge the Democrats will destroy Medicare. The fact that not long ago it was the GOP wanting to eliminate waste and abuse from the program seems to be forgotten. Democrats, meanwhile, seem incapable of understanding the relationship between medical costs and insurance costs. Listening to their claims that cracking down on evil insurance companies will lower health care spending is disappointing. It would be nice if now and then a Senator would acknowledge that medical costs drives up premiums and not vice versa – a wish not likely to be realized any time soon.  I heard on the radio last week (sorry, not sure what station) a lawmaker complaining that health insurance companies use actuaries, an unfair advantage they wield to the detriment of consumers.

But in the past few days some ideas seem to be gaining traction that could mix things up considerably. One proposal is to allow 55 through 64 year olds to buy into Medicare. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein seems to be the first blogger to report the Medicare buy-in proposal is “attracting the most interest” as an alternative to creating a new government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. The under 65 cohort would not get basic Medicare coverage for free nor does it look like this approach includes subsidies not already on the table. It simply is a way to create access for some Americans to a public health plan without creating a new public health plan. And as with the public option, participation by 55 year olds would be voluntary.

That the idea of a Medicare buy-in option is gaining traction would seem to indicate that chances for a “true public option” are diminishing. Even liberal bloggers like AntonRobb at are reaching this conclusion. “… proponents of the public option may be compelled to get behind this plan as an alternative. The severeley (sic) comprised … versions of the public option that have any chance of passing … would probably be worthless and probably do more damage politically to the Dems than good,” he writes.

The other interesting idea to emerge is to, as CBS News describes it, “establish national health insurance options, which would be administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) but operated by private, nonprofit insurers ….” Since the OPM already administers the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), which insures members of Congress and their staffs among others, this alternative to a public option is being viewed as the equivalent of opening up the FEHBP to non-government workers. (Incidentally, although the CBS reports implies the plans would be administered only by nonprofit carriers, this is far from certain. None of the other news reports mentioned this restriction – and there are for-profit carriers participating in the FEHBP.)

The “what’s good for Congress is good for the public” approach seems to appeal to moderate and conservative Democrats who have been objecting to the creation of a new government-run health plan run by the Department of Health and Human Services. As CBS notes, Senators like Ben Nelson describes this proposal as an alternative to, not a version of, a public option.

The import of these proposals go beyond the fact that new ideas are on the table. It also shows the influence likely to be wielded by the “gang of 10” Senators formed over the weekend. These 10 Senators, five liberals and five moderates, are charged with hammering out a compromise on the public option, according to MSNBC. While focused on the public option, it is likely this group of lawmakers will be called on to bridge the chasm that separates liberal Democratic Senators from their moderate and conservative colleagues. Remember, liberals have long claimed that health care reform without a public option is no reform at all. So if the gang of 10 manages to find a way to remove a government-run health plan from the legislation while still keeping liberals on board, they will position themselves to fashion compromises on other divisive issues as well.

(For those interested, the gang of 10 is comprised of Senators Sherrod Brown, Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin, Jay Rockefeller, and Charles Schumer from the liberal wing of the party and moderate Democratic Senators Tom Carper, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Mark Pryor).

As noted above, the momentum building behind the Medicare buy-in and an FEHBP-type proposal is that the public option is not going to make it into the Senate bill. Not with a trigger. Not with an opt-out. Instead it appears the public option won’t be in the legislation at all. This should mollify Senator Joe Lieberman who has promised to vote with Republicans against bringing a health care reform bill to the floor if it contains a public option.

All of this also makes clear the strong desire of Democrats, regardless of their ideology, to pass health care reform. The New York Times reports on various lawmakers’ description of President Barack Obama’s message to Senate Democrats on Sunday. “He reminded us why we are here. He reminded us why we run for office. And he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through.” “Decades from now this will be the kind of vote you remember. It will be written in the faces of children and families who are relieved of the burden of anxiety and sorrow.”

Democrats consider this a historic moment. While grasping it carries political risk in the upcoming 2010 elections, failing to seize the opportunity poses even greater dangers. And the crushing of a dream many of these lawmakers have held for decades.

There are still controversies that could scuttle health care reform. And there will enough political charges and counter-charges bandied about to satiate even the most verbose pundits. But Senators are serious about finding a path to passage and it is increasingly likely they will pass some version of health care reform before years-end. Of course, this will only set the stage for the real work to begin: the House-Senate Conference Committee likely to convene shortly after New Year’s Day.

Senate Health Care Reform Still Alive, But Likely to Change

The Senate has just spent most of today (Saturday) engaging in a debate on whether to allow a debate on comprehensive health care reform. Later this evening 58 Democrats and 2 Independents will vote to allow Majority Leader Harry Reid’s health care reform bill come to floor for debate and consideration of amendments. 40 Republican Senators will vote unanimously against allowing this to happen. Senator Reid’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is still alive. It is unlikely to survive in its current form for long, however.

Don’t get me wrong. Tonight’s vote is significant, very significant.  The vote is a test of President Barack Obama’s and Senator Reid’s ability to line up enough votes to keep the bill alive.  The debate leading up to the vote has been an opportunity for Republican Senators to present their opposition to HR 3590. (Yes, the Senate has taken a bill passed by the House and moved to the Senate, gutted that language and substituted their health care reform package. Consequently, the Senate legislation has a House bill number.) And the vote to allow debate has served as an action forcing event, sort of, for Democratic moderates.

Those moderates could have sided with the Republicans killing the bill before it could be brought to the floor. Instead, they joined with their liberal colleagues and kept health care reform alive. While there are 18 moderate Democratic Senators (including Senator Joe Lieberman, who is an Independent), it eventually came down to three:  Senators Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson. All three made clear they would seek amendments to the bill before voting for it. And all three are among those moderates making it clear further changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is necessary before they’ll commit to voting for it.

We’ll learn more about the changes moderates will demand over the several weeks before a final vote on health care reform is held in the Senate.  Democratic leaders are hoping to hold that vote before the end of the year. The legislation would then move on to a conference committee that will attempt to reconcile it with legislation the House passed earlier this month.  More importantly, that conference committee, made up of an equal number of Senators and House members, will seek to fashion legislation they hope will earn the support of a majority of House members and 60% of Senators. As I’ve noted before, passage of legislation by the Senate is merely the final playoff game. The World Series — the conference committee — is yet to come.

Uniting the Democrats to allow debate on health care reform is a victory for the Obama Administration and for Senator Reid personally. That it took this much effort, however, demonstrates the challenges they yet face. Republicans appear to be uniting in opposition to the legislation. Even Senator Olympia Snowe, who voted for a health care reform bill in the Senate Finance Committee, is expected to vote against bringing HR 3590 to the floor.

I’ve written before about the power moderates have to determine if health care reform legislation will pass Congress and what the final bill will contain.  Now we’ll see that power put forward. Some of what they’ll ask for will be parochial. (That there’s a provision in Senator Reid’s bill that would send additional Medicaid money to Senator Landrieu’s state of Louisiana is neither a coincidence or accidental). But most of their demands wil concern public policy issues. Moderate Democrats tend to be more fiscally cautious than their more liberal colleagues, giving them pause to legislation that greatly expands governmental powers,  spends nearly a trillion dollars over the next decade and taxes corporations and individuals to pay for it. These are the issues on which they will focus.

Republicans will have their own pet issues, but those are unlikely to influence the outcome. Having already declared their unmoving opposition to any health care reform Democrats could claim keeps their campaign promises, the GOP has removed themselves from negotiations. (A couple of the Republicans, most notably Senator Snowe and her colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, might vote what moderate Democrats fashion. But whether they’ll be able to insert provisions without committing to voting for the bill if their amendments are accepted is unlikely. 

We don’t know yet what changes to HR 3950 moderate Democrats will demand, but the possibilities are extensive. They could eliminate a public option — or at least postpone its implementation until after other reforms have had a chance to take effect. They could  demand additional cost containment provisions. They could strengthen — or weaken — the requirement that all consumers obtain coverage. Certainly they will modify what taxes and fees are imposed to pay for health care reform.

What’s important to remember is that moderate Senators will have two shots at the bill. They’ll extract as much as they can during the current Senate debate. Then at least two or three of them are likely to agree to vote for the bill “in order to keep the process moving forward.” However, they’ll also make clear they want significant changes made to the legislation by the conference committee before they’ll commit to a vote that would place the legislation on the president’s desk. Liberals will insist they have compromised all they can, but in reality, the moderates (and the liberals) know that the progressives are likely to accept any legislation that can be called “health care reform” with a straight face. And as politicians, they have great skill in passing the straight face test.

Yes, Democrats have won the debate on whether to debate health care reform. What legislation eventually emerges from the Senate, if any, is still uncertain.

House and Senate Health Care Reform Bills Mark the Beginning of the Endgame

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is unveiling his health care reform plan after it received passing grades from the Congressional Budget Office. Whether he has the 60 votes he needs to bring the bill to the floor is still an open question, but odds are he’ll have the votes when he needs it, perhaps by this weekend.

Then the fun begins. Senators will debate the bill, offer amendments, vote on those changes, and finally craft a bill. If Senator Reid and his allies play their cards well, they’ll have the 60 votes needed to allow a vote on the legislation. (Yes, before there’s a vote there’s a vote on whether to have a vote – you’ve gotta love democracy). Only then will the Senate make history and pass health care reform.

Of course, what the Senate passes and what becomes law are two different things. Just as passage by the House of Representatives of HR 3962 was only a prelude to what will be the act of drafting the “real” health care reform bill.

Many have tried, but only President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have gotten this far with health care reform. What they’ve accomplished is historic and Herculean. Whether you support or oppose their bills, respect for their accomplishment is appropriate. But getting this far is not the end. Well, it’s the end of the beginning. And it brings us closer to the beginning of the endgame.

The legislative process involves several stages. In the beginning there’s a lot of sincere questions being asked as lawmakers seek information, float trial balloons, and generally get a lay of the political landscape and the issues. During this phase there are a lot of options on the tables, including the most extreme positions (e.g., do nothing or enact a single payer system).

This phase was also when it became clear that, for the most part, Republicans were as interested in defeating “Obamacare” as they were in reforming the health care system. By publicly declaring so early in the process they would oppose any legislation containing provisions dear to the Democrats, the GOP effectively removed themselves from the deliberations. Why, after all, would Democrats negotiate with a party that had made clear they would oppose anything other than their own proposals?

Of course, Republicans could ask the same question of the Democrats (and do). The difference is that Democrats are in the majority in Congress. So if the two parties go their separate ways, the Democrats could still, under the right circumstances, pass a bill. In other words, it’s their bat and ball, so if the Republicans stalk off the field, the game continues.

In the second legislative phase the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction on health care weighed in. General concepts became legislative language. Lawmaker’s inclinations became public votes. Options feel by the wayside. (This is the phase in which the possibility of enacting a single payer system was formally laid to rest).

What the committees produced generated a lot of concern, anger and raucous  objections. Apparently some folks thought someone in Washington really thought these bills would become law. Nope. What the committees were producing were negotiating positions, not laws. Everyone had their eye on the main battle to come in the fourth phase. They were setting up their arguments, gathering their support for the real showdown.

Before the showdown, however, we have to get through the current phase, phase three. In this portion of our program, ideology and public policy take a back seat to a very practical concern: what needs to be in the bill – and what needs to stay out of the legislation – in order to get enough votes to pass it.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle describes this process as shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s job: craft a bill that could get 218 members of the House into her wheelbarrow. She succeeded by cobbling together legislation that is an abomination to many of the House Members who voted for it.

Senator Reid’s task: to get 60 Senators into his wheelbarrow. To do that he’s pared back provisions (such as on a government-run plan) in ways that only three weeks ago liberals would have labeled a betrayal (and some still do. Of course, those progressives complaining about the compromises Senator Reid has made tend not be in the Senate. Because liberal Senators understand the process. If they need to accept a weakened public insurance program to help Senator Reid keep 60 frogs in the wheelbarrow, so be it.

Why do liberal House members vote for a bill they consider an abomination and progressive Senators accept compromises that were absolutely unacceptable a few weeks ago? Because this is the phase where it’s about getting something passed, not public policy.

If the Senate passes Senator Reid’s health care reform legislation, the fourth phase begins. A conference committee will be created made up of members of the House and Senate. Their task: to meld together the House and Senate proposals into a single bill for which Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid can shovel enough frogs into their respective wheelbarrows to pass.

Think about that challenge. A single bill that can get majorities in both chambers. That won’t be easy. The process won’t be pretty. Decisions will be made based on factors outside of health care reform.

Take Senator Joe Lieberman. He’s on record declaring his opposition to a government-run health plan is a matter of conscience. His history makes clear he loves being Chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Keeping the chairmanship he loves may require him to bend his conscience a bit. Yes, who chairs a particular committee has nothing to do with the substance of health care reform. But it has everything to do with the politics of health care reform.

(By the way, I’m not saying Senator Lieberman has been threatened with losing his chairmanship unless he agrees to let health care reform come to a vote in the Senate. But if it turns out he was, no one should be surprised. Hardball is a sport played by both parties. And  the higher the stakes, the harder the ball.)

Given the nature of the issue and the politics, the conference committee will forgo public policy debates and focus on fashioning a compromise that majorities of the frogs – I mean, lawmakers – in each chamber can support. This means what the House passed and what the Senate may pass are now the extremes in the health care reform debate. Compromises, after all, tend to wind up in the middle of two poles. The Congressional leaders making up the conference committee will try to establish a middle ground on which their needed majorities can stand. Their building blocks will be what it takes to get the bill passed. That the result may be messy, perhaps even unworkable is of less concern. There will be time enough to fix those problems.

Getting reform right was for an earlier phase in the process. And by eliminating some of the more extreme ideas, by establishing the boundaries of reform, those phases assured that public policy considerations would have an impact on the final legislation. But that was then. In this final phase of the legislative process it’s is about getting reform. Period.

In short, the health care reform process to date has been fascinating and important, but it’s main purpose has been to define negotiating positions. We’ll see the end of the beginning of health care reform if and when the Senate enacts its version of reform.

Only when the conference committee convenes, however, do we move into the beginning of the endgame, the point where the drafting process of health care reform begins in earnest.

House Health Care Reform Passes, But It’s Far From the Last Word

History was made on November 7th when the House of Representatives passed HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. Yes, it was a close vote (220 in favor versus 215 opposed). Yes, only one Republican voted for the bill. Yes, the legislation leaves a lot to be desired. At the end of the day, all that matters is that the legislation passed. President Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative remains alive and is closer to reality than the efforts of his predecessors. Given the complexity and controversy surrounding the issue, not to mention the competing demands of numerous, powerful stakeholders, this is a remarkable achievement.

While historic and remarkable, however, it’s important not to read too much, or too little, into what happened. Consider:

House Passage of Health Care Reform Puts Pressure on the Senate: It’s probably hard for Republicans to understand the importance of health care reform to Democrats. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a tax decrease to the GOP. It’s a defining issue, in the sense that the issue differentiates themselves from the other side. When Republicans controlled the White House and Congress they lowered taxes. They could have made a major push behind health care reform during their years in power, but that’s not where Republicans were willing to invest the political capital in health care reform, not when it could be put behind cutting taxes. Democrats now control the Executive and Legislative branches. And they are investing their political capital where their heart is: health care reform.

Which means if you’re a Democratic Senator you do not want to be the reason health care reform fails. No doubt some members of the Senate were quietly hoping the vote in the House would fall short, letting them off the hook. No such luck. Now it’s up to Senate Democrats to keep the dream of health care reform alive.

HR 3962 is Not on the President’s Desk: Nor is it likely to ever get there.  What the Senate will pass is not likely to look a lot like the Affordable Health Care for America Act, either. The politics in the Senate are far different from that in the House. Consider the idea of the government creating – and maintaining – a health plan to compete with private carriers. Senator Joe Lieberman reiterated his threat to vote against allowing a reform bill containing a government-run plan to come to a vote on the Senate floor, according to the Associated Press. Unless his 60th vote is replaced by a Republican (think Senator Olympia Snowe) Democrats will be unable to overcome a GOP filibuster with Senator Lieberman’s vote.

Of course, as noted in an earlier post, Senator Roland Burris is threatening to prevent a bill without a public insurance plan to come to a vote. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has to craft a package that satisfies a diverse and divided caucus (Senator Lieberman is an Independent, but he caucuses with Democrats in order to hold on to his committee chairmanship). Senator Reid has already submitted a proposal to the Congressional Budget Office for review. (That the CBO has yet to issue an analysis is widely taken as evidence the cost of the legislation is higher than Senator Reid is counting on, meaning adjustments will be required). Meaning …

The Senate Will Pass a More Moderate Bill. Whatever Senator Reid puts before the Senate, it will be more moderate than HR 3962. Moderates hold more power in the Senate than they do in the House. Leaving aside Senator Lieberman, passage of health care reform in the Senate will need to satisfy 17 moderate and conservative Democrats. While several of these Senators have already pledged their support to the legislation outlined (but not published yet) by Senator Reid, there’s enough hold-outs to force concessions that will disappoint liberals. Yet those liberals are unlikely to vote against health care reform and accept blame for defeating this core Democratic issue. (Senator Burris is an exception for reasons discussed in the previous post).

When the Senate Acts Will Be When Democrats Have 60 Votes:  Warner Pacific, a general agency based in California, held a series of town hall meetings last week featuring former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. John Nelson, co-CEO of Warner Pacific, interviewed Senator Daschle for roughly 90 minutes and the result were numerous, meaningful insights which I’ll try to write about in future posts. But one observation Senator Daschle offered is relevant here. When it comes to passing legislation, the Senator described the role of the Majority Leader and House Speaker as shoveling frogs onto a wheelbarrow. Why did the House vote on health care reform now instead of waiting to learn more details concerning the Senate legislation? Because Speaker Nancy Pelosi had finally managed to fill the wheelbarrow with at least 218 votes and the longer she waited the more likely it was one of them would jump out.

Speaker Pelosi had a somewhat easier task than the one facing Senator Reid’s. She needed to muster a simple majority and the rules of the House gives her more power than Senator Reid enjoys in the upper house. Plus he needs to shovel a super-majority of 60 frogs into his wheelbarrow.  Once he marshals the votes, however, expect the Senate to act relatively quickly. And don’t expect a vote to be scheduled until Senator Reid is reasonably confident he will prevail. Once that happens, however, the Senate will likely pass their health care reform legislation. Then …

It’s the Conference Committee That Matters: Getting health care reform this far has required a Herculean effort by lawmakers and the White House. And it’s all aimed at getting two bills to a Senate-House conference committee. That’s where the final deals will be struck, losers and winners defined, and the political calculation made as to what single bill can be passed by both chambers of Congress.

For brokers, one of the issues to watch will be related to the health insurance exchange reform will create. In the Senate bill, at least for now, there’s a provision to require those selling products in the exchange to be licensed by their state; the House bill permits unlicensed entities to sell the products. (Ironically, the House approach, which would let DMV clerks sell health insurance in the exchange is supported by some Republicans in the Senate).

The conference committee will determine the taxes implemented to finance reform, what mandates are in place and how they’re enforced, whether there’s a government-run health plan, what cost containment provisions are included, and whether reform addresses malpractice – among other items. In other words, while everything leading to the conference committee is important, it has all been prelude.

To use a baseball analogy, think of the general discussions and hearings earlier this year as Spring Training. The committee votes were the regular season. The vote in the House was a league playoff and now we await the outcome of one more playoff series. All of this leads to the World Series, known as the conference committee. So there’s still more to come. It’s what comes out of the conference committee that, if approved by both the Senate and House, will be signed into law by President Obama. And, assuming something is passed …

Health Care Reform Will Be Worse Than Hoped For, But Better Than Feared:  A  friend from college went to the same law school I did, but a year earlier. As I approached my first day of classes I asked him what to expect. “Worse than you hope it is; better than you fear it will be,” was his reply. (And he was right). Well, the same applies to health care reform.

For example, there’s far less medical cost containment in either the House or Senate bills than most observers believe is necessary to make coverage affordable. But as Senator Daschle noted at the Warner Pacific town hall meeting – and as reader JimK has pointed out – there are some potentially significant cost containment provisions tucked away in the bills. Yes, they call for studies and regulations as opposed to describing details, but perhaps that’s the only way cost containment can make it through the political labyrinth that is Congress. They hold the potential, however, to lead to a significant bending of the cost curve. Of course, for now, it’s only a potential, but still, it’s there.

Consider: When California passed its small group reforms in the early 1990s many brokers and industry insiders feared it would harm the market. Instead that legislation, AB 1672, has been a stabilizing influence that eliminated harmful industry practices without destroying the industry in the process. Yes, there were winners and losers (the dominance of Multiple Employer Trusts in the small group market soon ended), but most brokers and their clients will agree it was a net win.

I watched some of the debate on the Affordable Health Care for America Act on C-Span Saturday. To over-generalize, Democrats made the Superman argument: the status quo was leading the country to ruin and only HR 3926 could save the day. Republicans countered with the Hell and damnation offensive: passage of the Democrat’s health care reform legislation would lead to the destruction of all America stands for.

The reality is, the Democrats are overselling what the bill does. And Republicans are exaggerating the negatives. Many of the charges leveled against HR 3962 by GOP members were similar to those their counterparts made against Medicare 45 years ago. Now the GOP positions itself as the protector of Medicare. Apparently not all slippery slopes lead to damnation after all.

What the House accomplished on November 7th is historic. It is neither all good nor all bad. Nor, significantly, is it the final word.

Harry Reid’s Health Care Reform Dilemma: The Myth of the 60th Democratic Senator

If asked even two weeks ago I’d have said there was an 80 percent change or greater that meaningful health care reform would be signed into law this year. Now, however, I think the chances of such an outcome are far lower – still substantial – but much less likely.

One reason meaningful health care reform may not reach President Barack Obama’s desk this year is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is having difficulties in lining up the 60 votes necessary to overcome the inevitable filibuster from Republicans. Senator Reid’s problem is that while there are 60 Senators in his caucus, there are really only 59 Democrats plus Senator Joe Lieberman.

Senator Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats because he used to be one (he won re-election as an Independent in 2006) and he wants to be a Committee Chair (he chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee). However, he campaigned strongly for Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, even addressing the Republican National Convention. Senator Lieberman also has said he expects to campaign for Republican candidates in 2010. It doesn’t take much insight to predict that, were Republicans to gain a majority in the Senate, Senator Lieberman would be knocking on their door for admittance.

Senator Lieberman has pledged to support a filibuster of a health care reform bill that includes a public option.  While he recently seems to have backed off this threat, as Timothy Noah on points out, the Senator’s position on health care reform has been … well, let’s call it a bit erratic. So let’s say Senator Reid puts forward a bill that Senator Lieberman can support, does that solve his problem?

Hardly. Remember Senator Roland Burris, he of the controversial appointment to the Senate by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. Senator Burris is threatening to oppose any health care reform bill that does not include the public option. As Senator Rollins is a bit of pariah in the Senate (many of its members, including his fellow Senator from Illinois, having called for him to resign) the Democratic leadership has little influence over his actions. So Harry Reid is in a bit of a no-win situation. Go after Senator Lieberman’s vote and he risks losing Senator Burris’ support. Accommodate Senator Burris and there goes Senator Lieberman.

Meanwhile, Senator Reid is forced to wait for an analysis of his proposal by the Congressional Budget Office. What they have to say about his efforts to blend the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s differing versions of health care reform will greatly impact the votes of moderate Democrats. Since only one Republican vote, that of Senator Olympia Snowe, seems to be in play, those moderate Democrats hold the key to whether the Senate can muster the votes for health care reform.

Given that the debate in the Senate will be long, slogging through the legislation will take quite some time. While Senator Reid would like to get a bill on the president’s desk before Christmas, this is a present that may need to wait for the new year. That, of course, complicates matters considerably as 2010 is an election year. Lawmakers hate doing controversial things in an even numbered year. (Why the difference between December 2009 and January 2010 makes a difference is one of those unanswerable questions that seem to be especially common within the Beltway).

On paper, Democrats have a 60-vote majority in the Senate. That’s a myth. In reality they have a group of 60 Senators who caucus together, but don’t act together. That’s actually good for democracy (the unanimity within the Republican caucuses in Congress demonstrates stronger party unity, but a lack of individuality that is somewhat startling). But the diversity within the caucus makes being Majority Leader a lot harder.