Senate Finds Health Care Reform Compromise Hard to Find

Congress is in its lame-duck session. One might think that with the mid-term election completed lawmakers might have a simpler time cleaning up some of the less controversial provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (“Less controversial” is a relative term, of course. There’s so little agreement on the politics and public policy concerning health care reform I’m surprised there hasn’t been a law suit filed to determine whether the issue’s should be spelled as “health care” or healthcare.”)

President Barack Obama and a majority of Senators agree that the PPACA’s requirement that 1099s must be filed by businesses (including non-profits) and by local and state governments when expenditures with a single vendor or contractor  exceeds $600 is overly burdensome and needs to be greatly modified – or better yet, repealed. Yes, there would be a cost. This provision is expected to generate $19 billion in revenues over the next decade, according to Bloomberg.com. But Senators should be able to find a way to solve the problem without busting the bank, right?

Eventually, but not right now. 67 votes are required to pass an amendment stripping the 1099 requirement from the PPACA. The Senate could muster only 61 votes to save small businesses and others from the financial and administrative nightmare of preparing tax notices to Staples, Google, the local printer, the guy who waters the plants, and, well, you get the idea. 35 Senators voted against the repeal. This vote was on an amendment, offered by Senator Mike Johanns to a food-safety bill. This amendment would have also required the White House Office of Management and Budget to cut federal spending by $39 billion. Another amendment to the food-safety bill by Senator Max Baucus that did not include budget cuts failed on a 44-to-53 vote.

The New York Times reports that one reason cited by some Democrats for opposing Senator Johanns’ proposal was that it granted too much leeway to the administration to determine spending cuts. Such decisions should be made by Congress, they argued. Of course, anyone who has watched Congress over the past, say, 10 years, might question that bodies ability to cut spending on anything, but when the argument of being overly deferential to the Executive Branch is handy, some Senators will grab it. Republicans voted against Senator Baucus’ amendment because it did not offset the $19 billion in lost revenue. Given the unfunded proposals voted on by Congress with great regularity over the past, say, 10 years, that this is a sincere argument is also somewhat suspect.

The good news is that the odds are very good a compromise will be reached and the 1099 provision repealed before this Congress adjourns. At some point politics must yield to common sense and near unanimous agreement on an issue. Doesn’t it?

Random Thoughts on Health Care Reform

Just some random thoughts while we see if the Democrats can muster enough votes to enact health care reform. None of them are worth a separate post (and may not be worth being in any post), but I thought I’d clear the decks before the real fun starts over the next few weeks.

It’s Franken’s Fault: If health care reform fails I blame Senator Al Franken. Elected by a mere 206 votes, Senator Franken became the 60th Democratic vote, the super-majority the caucus needed to overcome, in theory, any Republican filibuster. This enabled President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress to treat health care reform as a Democrats-only endeavor. Yes, Senator Max Baucus tried to work out a compromise with a few Republicans (and actually got one of them to vote for the Senate Finance bill). But liberals in the party and in the land of pundits were constantly and consistently pushing reforms to the left.  For example, Democrats insisted health care reform include a government-run health insurance plan far longer than would have been the case if they lacked a super-majority. Want proof? The public option fell to the wayside within 58 hours of the loss of their super-majority.

Of course, liberal Democrats had already made the mistake of believing that all Democrats think alike. Proud to be the party of inclusion, they forgot that they had included moderates and conservatives into their ranks. They somehow thought they could get Senators Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln and other centrists to go along with the liberal wish list for health care reform. Having a super-majority masked this illusion. So if 104 Minnesotans had voted the other way, who knows, health care reform might have passed months ago.

Republicans Will Vote to Keep the Sweeteners.  Republicans hate being called the Party of No, but they’ve earned the epitaph. They seem to have adopted a political strategy that Democrats can achieve no victories. Whether that’s to embrace the Tea Party advocates who want the federal government to go away, acquiescence to Rush Limbaugh who is on record saying he wants President Obama to fail, or, who knows, a sincere expression of their public policy beliefs, the outcome is they act in near lockstep to defeat any proposal with the Administration’s finger prints on it. Which may create an interesting spectacle: Republicans voting to preserve the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase.

These are among the legislative sweeteners added to the Senate health care reform bill to gain the support of Senators Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu. And to deprive President Obama of a victory on health care reform Republican may need to defeat legislation to repeal them. Here’s why:

Under the legislative dance Democrats are likely to use to pass health care reform, the House will pass the Senate’s version health care reform bill. Since the Senate bill already passed that legislation – with a super-majority no less, House passage sends it directly to the President’s desk for his signature. At the same time Democrats will introduce legislation aimed at modifying the Senate legislation to, among other provisions, repeal the sweeteners, bribes, backroom deals, whatever you want to call them. Among those “other provisions,” by the way, are a number of items on Republican’s health care reform wish list. To deny Democrats the a victory on health care reform, Republicans may have to defeat the clean-up legislation – a vote to keep the sweeteners and to defeat their own reform proposals. The word “ironic” comes to mind – along with many others.

Politicians Need an Asterisk Projector. President Obama likes to say that “If you like your current health insurance you can keep it.” Well, in theory maybe. For awhile perhaps. But even in the short-term there’s a huge caveat: there’s no guarantee you can keep your health insurance in the current health insurance system and the reform bills do nothing to change that. When employers changes coverage, their employees change coverage. Whether they want to make that change or not. If a carrier drops a particular health plan in the individual market, insureds have to choose another plan. So when President Obama makes this pronouncement, he should project an asterisk over his head to cover these contingencies.

When Republicans condemn Democrats for even thinking about using the reconciliation process to pass the health care reform clean-up legislation discussed above they should project an asterisk. That’s because they were very happy to pass tax cuts a few years ago using the reconciliation process. So what Republicans mean when they oppose reconciliation is that they’re for it when it’s helpful to them and they think it’s un-American when it’s not.

For a Rookie He’s Gotten Pretty Far. Regardless of what you think of President Obama’s ideas or his tactics, you have to give him credit for getting further with health care reform than any of his predecessors. Pretty impressive for someone who was a State Senator just five years ago.

Whether It’ll Make Things Better or Worse is A Guess. Of course, it would be nice if the health care reform package he may get through was better than what will emerge from Congress, but let’s face it: no reform proposal would be popular. This is one of those issues in which there are no popular options. Everyone recognizes the status quo can’t endure. Everyone knows every proposal to fix the system is gravely flawed.

My first political mentor, Cathy O’Neill, used to say, however, “The test of whether to vote for something is not whether it’s perfect, but whether it’s better than what we’ve got.” When it comes to health care reform, however, there’s no way to know if a particular bill will make things “better” or not. The system is too complex. The opportunity for unintended consequences is too great. It’s likely only comprehensive reform can fix the system, but there’s no way to truly understand what comprehensive reform will accomplish until well after it’s implemented. Not a reassuring prospect, but it’s reality.

We’ve Only Just Begun.  Let’s say health care reform passes. That’s just the start. States and regulators will need to interpret and implement the reforms. Future Congress’ may seek to change or repeal the bills. Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “It’s not over until it’s over.” When it comes to health care reform, “It’s not over even when it’s over.”

Health Care Reform 2009 Style

When it comes to health care reform 2009 has been an interesting year. And while comprehensive health care reform legislation will not be arriving on President Barack Obama’s desk this year, it is all but certain that will happen early in 2010. Getting to this penultimate moment has, to put it mildly, taken some doing. And the process says a lot about America and its leaders.

Health Care Reform Activity

President Obama had made clear throughout his campaign for the presidency that health care reform would be a top priority of his new administration. He lost no time making his promise real after his inauguration. Expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, a proposal twice vetoed by then President George Bush, along with significant funding for medical technology, were a part of Administration’s economic stimulus package.

President Obama’s health care reform efforts took a serious blow in February when former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was forced to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services and as Director of the White House Office on Health Reform due to problems with his past tax returns. Senator Daschle is a political pragmatist who is highly regarded by lawmakers from both parties. Would the health care reform debate have been more civil had Senator Daschle led the White House reform effort? We’ll never know. What we do know is that civility quickly left the room as the House and Senate Committees with jurisdiction on the matter began their deliberations. The health care reform debate was passionate, raucous and partisan to the extreme. Neither party and no ideology is blameless for this descent into the dark side of politics. Both have benefited from it (although none as much as the 24 hour cable news channels) and both have sullied their standing with the public as a result.

Given what’s at stake when 1/6th of the nation’s economy is subjected to the legislative process, there may have been no avoiding an ugly health care reform debate. President Obama made clear in a speech in February that he wanted health care reform passed quickly. Many Republicans (and their talk show host allies) made it clear they’d rather see no health care reform rather than anything along the lines being proposed by – or that would politically benefit – President Obama. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means, House Education and Labor and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees pushed through liberal bills; anchors on the left in anticipation of the negotiations to follow. The resulting climate promoted intense partisanship.

Eventually more conservative Democrats forced the House Energy and Commerce Committee to slow done and moderate the legislation, although what they passed would still be considered “liberal” by most definitions.  All the House bills passed out of the committees without a single Republican vote. Meanwhile Senator Max Baucus was trying to fashion legislation that might gain the support of at least three GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee. (He would eventually manage to get the support of only one GOP Senator).

The difficulty of finding common ground between liberals and conservatives on health care reform was made abundantly clear during the summer of 2009. The disruption of lawmaker’s town hall meetings were reminiscent of the anti-Viet Nam War protests of the 1960’s. (I suppose it’s ironic that many of those shutting down the town hall meetings had participated in the anti-war protests more than 40 years earlier). The passion and concern of the health care reform protests were as sincere as some of the rhetoric and actions were unfortunate and despicable (death threats and swastikas are inherently contemptible and disgraceful). The protests did assure, however, that Republicans would remain united against the kind of reforms being pushed by the Administration.

Reform was being pushed by the White House even if the Administration was declining to define reform. Instead the White House broadly described the key elements they’d like to see in a reform bill. President Obama’s three core principles for health care reform called for reducing costs, guaranteeing choice and ensuring quality care for all. He would later add other conditions (e.g., reform could not add to the deficit), but the details of the bill were being hashed out in Congress by Democratic lawmakers. The result, much to the chagrin of liberals, was that over time the legislation became increasingly moderate culminating in the legislation passed out of the Senate Finance Committee with the support of only one Republican, Senator Olympia Snowe.

With all the committees of jurisdiction having staked out their positions it was time for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pull together the pieces into bills that could pass their respective chambers. Speaker Pelosi succeeded first with the House passing a health care reform in November. The price of passage was high: liberals had to accept language dealing with abortions that sparked outrage in the pro-choice community.  It took the Senate more than a month to follow suit, but eventually they did. Now it’s up to a conference committee to pull the pieces together into one bill that can pass both the House and the Senate. Not an easy task, but with the finish line in sight it’s very doubtful lawmakers will falter now.

The Public Policy Dimension

While the activity swirling around health care reform has been … interesting, the evolution of the substance of the legislation has been even more fascinating. Not all that long ago liberal lawmakers were claiming a health care reform bill lacking a government-run health plan was no health care reform at all. They seemed to believe that a public health plan was the magic wand that would remake America’s health care system into something fair, competitive and wonderful. Or maybe they just thought the public option was a way station on the path to their promised land: a single payer system. While the House bill would create a new government health plan, the Senate legislation rejected the public option. While liberals outside of Congress continue to attack reform without a public option, liberals lawmakers seem to accept the inevitable. What emerges from the conference committee will no doubt lack a public option and liberal lawmakers will still support the reform package.

While liberals were losing a public option an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals were also watering down a requirement that all Americans purchase coverage. Conservatives dislike the idea as a restriction on the freedom of people to have their health care reform subsidized by higher health insurance premiums for everyone else. Liberals don’t like it because, apparently, the result is a windfall for evil health insurance companies. (OK, they offer more substantive public policy arguments against the individual mandate, but the rhetoric focuses on freedom and windfalls). Never mind that requiring health plans to sell coverage without requiring individuals to buy coverage before they incur claims is a recipe for higher insurance costs or that many states require drivers to buy auto insurance. As the legislation has moved through Congress the penalty for failing to purchase coverage has drifted toward a slap on the wrist end of the spectrum.

Other issues have taken interesting turns as well. Reimbursing doctors for counseling to seniors concerning living wills and the like was removed from the bill once the discussions were labeled “death panels.” What taxes will be imposed to pay for health care reform is still uncertain. Anti-abortion advocates have done a masterful job of inserting abortion into the debate. Both the House and Senate bills contained provisions that could “bend the cost curve” (which is apparently the new articulation of what was once called cost containment). If all the cost cutting provisions in the current bills were moved into separate legislation it would actually look like a serious effort. Mixed in with the health insurance reform dominating the current versions, however, the provisions appear weak and almost an afterthought.

Health Care Reform 2009: The Human Factor

So what to make of health care reform 2009 style?

First, that the legislative process is messy and can be downright uninspiring. Second, that tackling an issue as important and complicated as health care reform cannot overcome the need for partisans of both parties to put aside the public good for their political stratagems. Third, that the health care reform package that finally passes will be far more moderate than might have been apparent earlier this year. Fourth, criticism that Congress is moving too fast on reform are really complaints that Congress is not doing what critics leveling this charge want them to do. The health care reform bill that will find its way to President Obama’s desk in 2010 will be over a year in the making. Longer if you count the debate on health care held during the 2008 presidential election. Longer still if you include the previous health care reform efforts undertaken over the past several decades.

We elect politicians to hold office because they promise to address problems. No one has ever won a campaign on the promise to do nothing if elected. In 2008 Democrats won, and won handily, in part on a promise to solve the problems posed by America’s current health care system. They are fulfilling that promise. In the process they will create new problems.

Because the fact is we humans rarely solve problems. Instead we tend to replace existing problems with new ones. And if the 2009 health care reform process has taught us anything, it’s that the people who make up the Administration and Congress (and the general public) are only human. Anyone looking at the health care reform package emerging from Congress would find evidence of that reality.

Senate Finance Committee Rejects Government-run Health Insurance Plan

The Senate Finance Committee continues to refine its health care reform legislation. Today it broke ranks with other Congressional committees with jurisdiction over health care reform by defeating amendments to create a government-run health plan. The debate was passionate, but ultimately enough Democrats joined with Republican Senators to defeat two attempts by the panel’s more liberal members to insert public option language into the bill.

Keeping the public option out of the bill was a major victory for Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Finance Committee. While acknowledging that a public option would “hold insurance companies’ feet to the fire,” his opposition was based on the goal of enacting health care reform this year. According to ABC News Senator Baucus believes health care reform including a government-run program cannot pass the Senate.

Senator Jay Rockefeller insisted, however, that a public health insurance plan was absolutely essential to meaningful reform. Failure to to create a public, non-profit plan to compete with private carriers, the Associated Press reports the West Virginia Democrat as saying, “was a virtual invitation to insurance companies to continue placing profits over people, and he predicted they would raise their premiums substantially once the legislation went into effect.”

Senator Baucus countered that the legislation being developed by the Senate Finance Committee includes numerous consumer protections, including a provision to prevent insurance companies denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. None of the lawmakers on either side of the aisle spent much effort in defending the behavior of private insurance companies. Senator Baucus said he agreed with the intent of the Rockefeller Amendment to “hold the insurance industry’s feet to the fire,” according to the Washington Post. The Associated Press quotes Senator Jim Bunning as observing that “the private sector is not doing exactly what it should do with medical services.”

Republican members of the committee were unanimous in their opposition to public options. The Washington Post quotes the ranking GOP member of the panel, Senator Charles Grassley, as warning that a government plan “will ultimately force private insurers out of business” and that “The government is not a fair competitor. It’s a predator.”

The first public option amendment, offered by Senator Rockefeller, would have permitted the government-run plan to set reimbursements to medical providers at levels paid by Medicare for the first two years. (After that period, I believe the Senators proposal would have permitted the public medical plan to, like Medicare, impose rates on providers). It should be noted, Medicare often pays doctors and hospitals less than the cost they incur providing services. The five Democrats joining with Republican committee members to defeat this amendment were Senators Baucus, Thomas Carper, Kent Conrad, Blanche Lincoln, and Bill Nelson.

Senator Charles Schumer then proposed an amendment that would have required the public plan to negotiate reimbursement rates with providers, much as private carriers do today. Three Democrats – Senators Baucus, Conrad and Lincoln – voted against accepting this amendment.

I’ve maintained for some time that a government-run health plan was unlikely to be part the health care reform plan passed by Congress. The Senate Finance Committee’s rejection of this provision increases the likelihood of this outcome, but the debate will continue. Senator Schumer, for one, pledged to continue the fight. 

"’The present system is broken’" the Washington Post reports him as saying. “He said he was pushing for a public option not for ideological or symbolic reasons but because ‘costs are going through the roof.’ And he expressed confidence that, ‘with some work and some compromise,’  proponents of the provision eventually could get 60 votes on the Senate floor. ‘We are going to get at this, and at this, and at this, until we succeed, because we believe in it so strongly.’"

With polls showing 65 percent of the public support a government-run health plan operating like Medicare to compete with private health insurance plans, President Barack Obama continuing to argue for a public option, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi claiming the House was unlikely the House would pass health care reform that did not include a public option, this debate is far from over. Assuming the Senate Finance Committee moves forward a reform package this week, the next step will be for it to be integrated into the bill passed by the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee – legislation that does include a public option.

Getting health care reform is a long hike. Today’s vote in the Senate Finance Committee is a step along the way – albeit a very significant step indeed.

Senator Baucus Reaches Out to Liberals and Moderates on Health Care Reform

The Senate Finance Committee has embarked on its long journey to amend and refine the Chairman’s Mark of America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009. While there’s a lot of attention being given to the fact that committee members have submitted over 500 amendments that number is less impressive than it may seem. Many of these proposed changes are technical in nature while others are duplicative. Besides, it’s not the number of amendments that matter, it’s the substance of them that determines the scope of the task facing the committee.

The task is great. Three ideologies are at play on the committee: conservative, moderate and liberal. While conservatives will have their say and no doubt get a few of their proposals added to the bill, it is moderates and conservatives – most all of them Democrats – who will truly shape the final outcome. Most Republicans have made it clear they will vote against any bill that resembles the Chairman’s Mark. This effectively removes them from the mix, leaving the shaping of the legislation to a tug-of-war between moderates and liberals.

Senator Max Baucus modified his Chairman’s Mark to address criticism from liberals and to reach out to some moderates.

For example, Senator Baucus’ health care reform plan requires all individuals to obtain medical insurance and provides a premium subsidy to help make the coverage affordable for lower-income households. Originally, those subsidies were designed to cap premium costs at three percent of a household income for those making 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level rising to thirteen percent of household income for those households earning 300 percent of the FPL. Senator Baucus modified his original proposal to “lower the maximum amount of income that families would contribute to their health insurance premiums to two percent of income for those at 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level …” He also increased the number of Americans eligible for those subsidies to households earning 400 percent of the FPL ($43,320 for an individual; $88,200 for a family of four) and capped their premium costs at 12 percent of income — $10,584 for a family at 400 percent of FPL. (Page 6 of the Modifications to the Chairman’s Mark). To illustrate how the subsidies under various health care reform bills work, including the modified version of Senator Baucus’ proposal, take a look at the nifty subsidy calculator on Kaiser Family Foundation site.

Senator Baucus also reduced out-of-pocket maximums for households between 200 and 300 of the poverty level to two-thirds of the HSA out-of-pocket limit ($3,987 for an individual; $7,073 for a family in 2010). (Page 6 of the Modifications).

A change requested by Senator Olympia Snowe, the Republican most likely to support the bill in committee, was accepted by Senator Baucus. It would require small employers to provide a plan with a deductible of no more than $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families unless higher amounts are offset by HSAs, HRAs or the like. (This requirement would not impact the “young invincible” catastrophic coverage medical plan (that also cover preventive care) available to those 25 years old and younger. (Page 6 of the Modifications).

Speaking of the young invincible bill, Senator Baucus accepted another proposal by Senator Snow, opening up eligibility for these plans to those who would otherwise have been eligible for a hardship exemption from the requirement to obtain coverage. The exemption was available to those for whom premiums exceed 10 percent of their income. (Page 6 of the Modifications).

As originally proposed, workers receiving coverage from their employers that met certain conditions would be ineligible to receive tax credits to enable them to purchase coverage on their own through a health insurance exchange. Senator Baucus accepted yet another amendment from Senator Snowe that lowers this threshold, permitting employees whose share of premiums through their employer-sponsored coverage exceeds 10 percent of their income to qualify for the tax credit. (Page 7 of the Modifications).

There are other significant changes, too. For example, the threshold for plans on which insurance companies would be subject to a tax (so-called “Cadillac plans) had not been indexed to inflation in the original proposal. Over time this meant these plans (costing $8,000 for individual coverage and $21,000 for family coverage in 2013) would likely look more like Chevrolets. Senator Baucus now indexes the threshold for these plans. He also increased the excise tax from 35 percent to 40 percent.

The amendments accepted by Senator Baucus without a debate highlights his desire to placate Senator Snowe and other moderates on one hand while addressing some of the concerns of liberals on the other. The political calculus is simple: the more these Senators can claim that they improved the bill, the greater their political cover to vote for it.

Put another way, it is unlikely any of the changes accepted by Senator Baucus reduces the chances of the bills passage and many increase its chances. With hours of debate and dozens of sustentative changes to consider, this journey is far from over.

Affordability and America’s Healthy Future Act

In yesterday’s post answering questions about Senator Max Baucus’ health care reform proposal, I inadvertently overlooked a question posed by JimK. He points out the proposed health care reform legislation provides a tax credit to those earning up to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), but questions whether the Chairman’s Mark mandates people pay 13 percent of their income in premium as alleged on Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  Here’s how (I think) Mr. Olbermann’s math works.

Under the America’s Healthy Future Act every citizen would be required to purchase health insurance coverage. As JimK notes, subsidies would be available to help those earning less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level  purchased coverage through the exchange. (Subsidies are apparently not available to those purchasing coverage in the traditional market). These premium subsidies are available on a sliding scale. Those households at the poverty level would be required to contribute three percent of the income toward their health insurance premiums; households at 300 percent of the poverty level would contribute 13 percent. (Chairman’s Mark page 21, page 24 of the PDF)

The FPL is adjusted annually. In 2009 the federal poverty level is $10,830 for an individual and $22,050 for a family of four. If the Baucus health care reform plan was in-force today, individuals earning 100 percent of the FPL would pay $325 toward their medical premium; a family of four with household income of 100 percent of the FPL would pay $662. Individuals at 300% of the Federal Poverty Level ($32,490) could pay $4,224 for medical coverage while our hypothetical family of four (earning $66,150 annually),could pay as much as $8,600.

There are two things to keep in mind concerning this aspect of the Senate Finance reform plan. First, these are preimum subsidies. Consumers could pay thousands of additional dollars — and a greater percentage of their income —  for out-of-pocket expenses.

Second, once household income exceeds 300 percent of the FPL no premium subsidy is provided. In 2009, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, “average annual (health insurance) premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance are $4,824 for single coverage and $13,375 for family coverage.” Granted, coverage obtained through the work place is usually much more expensive than insurance purchased on one’s own. Finding an average price for policies purchased on one’s own is a bit harder. eHealthinsurance, based on the carriers they represent and consumers purchasing through their site, found the median premium for individual health insurance was $1,584; for families it was $3,948 (the numerical averages were higher: $1,932 and $4,596 respectively). eHealthinsurance reports the average deductible for the individual plans it sold was $2,326 while it was $3,129 for family coverage)

For an individual earning $35,000 (323 percent of the Federal Poverty Level) and ineligible for a subsidy, the median premium ($1,584) represent 4.5 percent of household income; the average premium ($1,932) comes to 5.5 percent. For a family of four earning $70,000 (317 percent of FPL) their $3,948 median premium amounts to slightly more than 5.5 percent of household income; the average premium ($4,596) represents 6.6 percent of their income.  Again, this is before any out-of-pocket medical expenses are paid.

Which raises the question: assuming the eHealthinsurance rates are roughly equivalent to the cost of coverage available after health care reform, will coverage be affordable? If Americans must purchase health insurance it’s only fair that the cost for this coverage is within their means.

It’s likely Senator Baucus set the subsidy levels based on what the cost of this premium support would be on the federal budget. He determined this is the level of support the country can afford to provide consumers. But can consumers afford these costs? For a family of four with income of $70,000, paying nearly $4,000 in premium plus potentially several thousand more in out-of-pocket medical expenses is a significant burden. The problem is, going without coverage could be much more damaging to their finances — and to their health.

Balancing personal responsibility with the cost of coverage to families and impact of premium support on the federal budget is both a financial and a moral challenge. It requires lawmakers — and voters — to make tough choices. It also shows that the effort to restrain medical costs must be pursued just as rigorously, if not more so, than increasing access. Otherwise health care reform could result in insurance coverage and financial hardship for all.

CBO Bolsters Baucus Health Care Reform Plan

The Congressional Budget Office has given a boost to the Chairman’s Mark of America’s Healthy Future Act 0f 2009. In a preliminary analysis of  the health care reform proposal put forward by Senator Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. the CBO estimates the plan would reduce federal budget deficits by $49 billion between 2010-and-2019.

The Congressional Budget Office is highly regarded by both parties for its independent analysis. Their findings can cripple a bill or enhance its stature. In this case, even though the report is preliminary, the CBO adds substantial credence to Senator Baucus’ reform effort. A good thing considering the attacks on the proposal from both wings of the political spectrum.

The CBO presented its findings in a letter to Senator Baucus on September 16, 2009. (The analysis is summarized on the blog of CBO director Douglas Elmendorf). In addition to the positive effect on the federal deficit the analysis projects the health care reform legislation would increase federal revenues by $139 billion over the 10 year period. To be sure, the CBO, working with the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation notes these estimates “are all subject to substantial uncertainty.” Further, the analysis was based on a description of the Chairman’s Mark of the America’s Healthy Future Act provided by Senate Finance Committee staff, not the document itself let alone actual legislative language.

What the CBO reports is that Senator Baucus’ health care reform bill would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 29 million by 2019 according to the analysis. This would increase the percentage of Americans legally in the country and under the age of 65 to approximately 94 percent in 10 years from its current level of roughly 83 percent. This would leave “25 million nonelderly residents uninsured (about one-third of whom would be unauthorized immigrants).”

Where these newly insured consumers obtain coverage is kind of interesting. As you read these numbers, keep in mind that the size of the individual health insurance market nationally is estimated to be approximately 18 million people. The CBO estimates roughly “25 million people would purchase coverage through the new insurance exchanges, and there would be roughly 11 million more enrollees in Medicaid than is projected under current law.”  These numbers are significant. They will change the dynamics of the market, but they hardly represent a government takeover, especially considering that the Senate Finance Committee proposal does not create a government-run health plan.

The health care reform plan put forward by Senator Baucus has been subjected a great deal of criticism by Democrats and Republicans, but the attacks by liberals have been especially vicious. Which means the real debate has begun. During August it was conservatives dominating the attack on Congressional health care reform proposals. Now liberals are joining the rant party. Here’s another example from Countdown with Keith Olbermann who, like the Glenn Becks on the right, seems unable to disagree with someone on public policy without calling them names or attributing venal motives to anyone on the other side. It’s politics by outrage that demeans the debate, but pleases the partisans.

Are there flaws in Senator Baucus’ health care reform plan? Yes. Hopefully the debate starting next week in Senate Finance will fix many of them. Is his plan better than the status quo?It certainly would be for the 29 million Americans gaining coverage under the proposal. Reducing the deficit seems like a step in the right direction. And, as I’ve noted before, to the dismay of Mr. Olbermann, health care reform will be decided by moderates. And moderates aren’t attacking the America’s Healthy Future Act.

Baucus Introduces America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009

Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has unveiled his health care reform proposal, the “America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009” in the form of a “Chairman’s Mark.”  This means instead of publishing legislative language, the plan is presented in a “here’s the current law and here’s how we should it” format. While specific legislative language would be nice, there’s enough detail in the 223 page document to get a good understanding of what Senator Baucus proposes. And we won’t have long to wait for the legislative language: the Committee will begin debating the bill on September 22, 2009.

No Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee have signed onto the plan, but I don’t think the lack of GOP support at this point dooms the Baucus proposal. As noted in my previous post, at least one of the three Republicans who has been negotiating with Senator Baucus towards a bi-partisan bill, Senator Olympia Snowe, has indicated she’s waiting to see how the bill is amended in committee before committing her vote. Further, the audience Senator Baucus is directing his health care reform plan to are moderate Democrats.

By directing his plan at moderates, Senator Baucus, not surprisingly, infuriates liberal Democrats. Senator Jay Rockefeller has already announced his opposition to the Chairman’s Mark and claims four-to-six other Democrats on the Finance Committee share his views. There are 23 members of the Senate Finance Committee: 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans. So Senator Baucus can afford to lose only one Democrat and still move his proposal out of the committee in the face of unanimous GOP opposition.

My expectation, however, is that neither President Barack Obama nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will let liberals bottle-up the bill in the Finance Committee. If needed, they’ll arrange for some progressive Democrats to speak against the bill, while voting to move it out of committee in order to “let the process proceed.” Of course, if Senator Snowe or any of the other Republicans on the committee vote for the amended bill, fewer Democrats will be needed.

A quick review of the Chairman’s Mark indicates there have been no substantive changes from what was expected. There’s no government-run health plan, it requires individuals to purchase coverage, it establishes state health insurance exchanges. What has been firmed up is it’s price tag: $856 billion over 10 years.

I hope to post more detailed analysis of the America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009 over the next few days, but in the meantime, below are a few articles that summarize the proposal. Senator Baucus describes his proposal in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal today. In reading these keep in mind that what Senator Baucus introduced today is only the beginning. On September 22nd the Senate Finance Committee will convene to debate and amend the bill. The mark-up, as it’s called, will be civil but robust. What emerges from the committee will be different than the Chairman’s Mark.

And that’s just the beginning. The Senate will need to reconcile the Senate Finance Committee’s bill with the legislation put forward by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The result of that mash-up will then need to be reconciled with whatever health care reform legislation the House approves by a conference committee made up Senators and House members. Then both chambers must approve the resulting compromise legislation.

In other words, there’s a long journey ahead for health care reform. There will be plenty of noise and controversy along the way. The path to reform will be subjected to a multitude of twists and turns. We won’t know how it turns out for another two-to-three months. But with the introduction of the America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009, the health care reform debate takes a big step forward.

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Here’s some articles describing Senator Baucus’ health care reform proposal:

Baucus Unveils $856 Billion Health-Care Legislation” from the Wall Street Journal.

Baucus unveils health care bill” from the Boston Globe.

Baucus Offers Health Plan With No Republican Backing” from Bloomberg.com

“Baucus Introduces $856 Billion Health Care Bill” from the Washington Post.

Baucus Puts Bill In Play” from National Underwriter (my thanks to Dwight Mazonne for identifying this article)

Lack of GOP Support for Baucus Health Care Reform Matters, But Not So Much

After months of trying to craft health care reform legislation that would garner at least some Republican support, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus appears ready to move forward without GOP support – at least for now. According to the Associated Press, Senator Baucus will release his proposal on Wednesday without any Republican co-sponsor. The media will claim this is a huge setback for Senator Baucus and for President Barack Obama.

Maybe, but I don’t think so. First, there is a possibility at least one Republican will support the legislation when it comes to a vote in committee. Politico.com reports that “Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is considered the likeliest Republican to sign onto the bill, said she wants to wait to see how the committee process plays out. “’I am committed to this process,’” Snowe said. “’I want this effort to continue and I am going to work through all these issues and the committee process will advance that as well and we will continue to work together.’” While the other two Republicans working on bi-partisan legislation sounded less upbeat, they have not completely closed the door to supporting bill either.

The second reason the lack of any Republican support may not matter much in the long run is that Senator Baucus’ bill will appeal to Democratic moderates. And while Republican votes would be useful, it is moderate Democrats that hold the key to health care reform. Without the support of most of the members of the Moderate Dems Working Group in the Senate or the Blue Dog Coalition in the House, Congress cannot pass health care reform legislation. There are 18 Democratic Senators who are a part of the moderate group. At least eight of them must support legislation for it to pass. In the House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 257-to-178, there are at least 52 members of the Blue Dog Coalition. They need at least 13 of them to support reform legislation.

Yes, there are more liberals in Congress than moderates. And some of these liberals are threatening to oppose health care reform that does not meet their litmus test of including a government-run health plan. But it’s much easier for a moderate to oppose health care reform than it is for liberals.

A moderate can stand on the floor and claim the bill is too expensive or involves too much government. Given their districts, this is unlikely to hurt them politically. In fact, it will likely help them in the upcoming election.

For a liberal to oppose one of the most important priorities of the Democratic Party because it doesn’t go far enough is a much tougher message. They must claim that millions of Americans should go without health care coverage because the bill isn’t ideologically pure enough. They must explain why insurance carriers should be permitted to continue to deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions because the legislation doesn’t include a public option. In other words, liberals need to argue that the status quo is better than any reform. That’s not only a tough argument to make, it’s a foolish one.

Senator Baucus would love for Republicans to support his health care reform bill. President Obama would too. But they don’t need Republicans to support the bill. They need moderate Democrats.

Senator Baucus is pitching his proposal to those moderates. If he succeeds and if President Obama can get liberals to vote for what they will perceive is a partial loaf, then health care reform passes. If either fails in their assignment, so does health care reform.

It’s that simple. And that complicated.

History Will Ignore Much of Today’s Health Care Reform Headlines

Living through historical moments can seem far less grandiose than reading about it. In the day-to-day grind of making history the big picture can get lost. Little issues take on huge proportions while overarching themes are hidden in the maelstrom. Historians get to step back, find the threads that build tension, create a narrative, and set-up the pay-off.

So it is – and will be – with health care reform. There have been a lot of distractions. For instance, critics of the Obama Administration have been pounding away at HR 3200, the House version of health care reform legislation. That legislation makes great fodder for 24-hour news channels and partisans across the spectrum. The bill offers something for everyone to demagogue. The fact that, in the end, HR 3200 – America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 – won’t have served as anything more than a lightening rod hardly matters.

The same can be said of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s proposal. The Senate HELP Committee’s and the House health care plans gave liberals something to cheer about and conservatives something to attack. My guess is history will show that was its greatest contribution to the debate. Yes, elements of these bills will be included in the legislation that will be signed into law by President Barack Obama later this year. But that’s because there’s always been a broad consensus concerning health care reform. It’s the 25 percent or so of the issue on which there is disagreement that is causing all the ruckus. And at the end of the day, I’ve longed believed it will be moderates who resolve the contentious health care reform issues.

And those moderates are almost ready to make their positions known. Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has promised to unveil a formal proposal Tuesday or Wednesday. While it’s not certain that any Republican Senators will sign-on to the proposal, what Senator Baucus will propose will be far more moderate than the current alternatives. According to the Associated Press, Senator Baucus and the other five Senators negotiating a bi-partisan bill have made progress on several controversial items, “including health insurance for the poor, restrictions on federal funding for abortions, a verification system to prevent illegal immigrants from getting benefits, and ways to encourage alternatives to malpractice law suits.”

If compromises have been reached on these issues, HR 3200 and the Senate HELP Committee’s proposal will have played an important role. By being the most extreme bill available to critics during August it flushed out their attacks. This, in turn, made it easier for moderates to indentify the hot buttons they needed to address. A Washington Post story describing some of the solutions being developed by the Senate Finance Committee’s so-called “Gang of Six” underscores this. (The Gang of Six are Democratic Senators Baucus, Jeff Bingaman, and Kent Conrad along with Republicans Mike Enzi, Charles Grassley and Olympia Snowe). For example, illegal immigrants will be specifically prevented from obtaining any benefits from the insurance exchanges being contemplated. A government-run health plan – the means leading to a government takeover of health care according to critics – will not be missing from the proposal.

For the past few weeks, Republicans have associated President Obama with HR 3200 and the liberal Senate HELP Committee proposal. Yet he has embraced neither. Instead, he is has set the stage for circling the wagons around whatever moderate proposal emerges from the Senate Finance Committee. And Senator Baucus and the others are working hard to make that possible. For example, President Obama embraced a Bush Administration proposal to permit states to test approaches to medical malpractice reform. According to the Washington Post article, such a provision will be in the Senate Finance Committee’s bill.

Liberal critics of President Obama will accuse him of capitulating to conservatives on many of these issues, especially abandonment of a public option. Conservatives will say he’s proven himself to be a liberal tax-and-spender and government-expander (the proposal is expected to cost around $880 billion over 10 years). In the short term there will be much sound and fury over such issues by both sides. If the compromise health care reform solution put forward by Senator Baucus and his colleagues becomes law, however, history will little note nor long remember such histrionics. (Which, for those paying attention to the clichés in this paragraph would tend to prove that Abraham Lincoln trumps William Shakespeare).

So long as the outcome meets President Obama’s general principles for the health care reform the White House will declare victory. History will relegate talk of death panels, cries of socialism, and demands that government get out of Medicare (along with other government-sponsored programs) to footnotes, if that.

As with any major reforms, history will also likely show that the historic health care bill to come will accomplish less than its critics fear or than its advocates claim while at the same time bringing forward unintended consequences of significant proportion. But those problems will be a challenge for a future Congress and Administration. History, after all, is made one step at a time.