- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

President Obama and his Democratic allies, scrambling to broker a health care deal Monday, finally got an upbeat assessment from Congress’ official scorekeeper when it said the plan for government-run coverage would not force out private insurers.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer trumpeted the report from the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ nonpartisan budget analyst, that said private insurers could survive competition from a government health insurance option - contradicting a chief criticism from Republicans.

“Now we’ve heard that the reform will represent a government takeover of health care. A point of fact: The opposite is true,” said Mr. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Republicans have said the public health insurance option, which would likely have low reimbursement rates, would drive private insurers out of business. They argue that once private insurers are gone, the public option would be the only health insurance option.

Republicans touted a report from theLewin Group, a health research firm owned by an insurance company, that predicted 100 million people out of the 160 million now covered by employer-sponsored insurance would go to the government coverage.

But the CBO estimates about 12 million people would opt for the public plan. The wide difference in estimates is the result of drastically different assumptions about the price of the plans. CBO estimated the public plan would cost 10 percent less than private plans, compared with the Lewin Group estimate that it would be 20 percent cheaper.

The CBO has been a source of partisan angst in the health care debate, with recent reports undermining the Democrats’ plans by determining they would not cut costs and result in unsustainable growth in government spending.

That verdict helped cement resistance from the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House and bolstered Republican criticism that the country can’t afford the $1 trillion price tag.

It also prompted Mr. Obama last week to summon CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf to a White House meeting - a somewhat unusual move that Republicans warned smelled of playing politics with a nonpartisan entity.

The CBO report, which also found that the employer requirement to provide insurance would cover 12 million new people, comes as Democrats try to push the bill through the Energy and Commerce Committee and to the full House floor.

Blue Dog Democrats on that panel are holding up Mr. Obama’s top domestic priority over the public plan that they say needs more cost-saving measures. The plodding pace of those talks and the crowded floor schedule make it increasingly unlikely the House will meet the August deadline set by Mr. Obama.

Senate Democrats, who are scheduled to remain in Washington until Aug. 7, have already abandoned hope of finishing a bill by then.

The Senate Finance Committee continued negotiations on its plan Monday, which likely will not include a requirement that employers provide insurance, said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican. Instead of the mandate, the group is considering strong incentives to encourage employers to provide insurance, such as requiring employers to cover the cost of their employees’ subsidy if they go on the public plan.

House Democrats called an all-member meeting late Monday, expected to last five hours, to review the 1,000-plus-page bill and counter Republican criticism that members haven’t even read it.

While the House is trying to patch things up with the Blue Dogs, some of the more liberal members in the House were concerned the bill would get skewed too far to the right.

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