- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2009

Seeking to get President Obama’s health care reform plans back on track, House Democrats released a draft of their bill Friday, a sweeping proposal that would change the face of American health care with a new public insurance program, along with requirements for employers to provide coverage and for individuals to obtain it.

The proposal, which still does not explain how the program would be financed, faces stiff opposition from Republicans and partisan bickering that has stalled the debate in one Senate committee.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the 850-page bill would be fully paid for, likely with Medicare and Medicaid reforms and new taxes, but declined to estimate the cost just yet.

The Ways and Means Committee is considering a series of proposals, including taxing sugary drinks and raising income taxes on the highest earners. Taxing employer-provided health care benefits, a proposal being considered in the Senate, has been met with criticism by top Democrats on the committee.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the committee, said the idea of taxing those who make less than $200,000 - the individual income figure below which President Obama said during the campaign he would not raise taxes - is on the table, along with many other proposals.

“Today marks a historic moment in America’s urgent quest to fix our broken health insurance system,” said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, one of the three committees with jurisdiction over health care that crafted the draft bill.

The chairmen, appearing with chairmen of associated subcommittees and former Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. John D. Dingell - for whom the bill will be named for his long interest in health care - said the proposal is merely a draft and open to negotiation. They expect the bill to cover about 95 percent of Americans and eliminate what they identified as abuses in the private health insurance industry, including canceling plans when a person gets sick and excluding sick people from coverage.

Employers would be required to provide health coverage - and pay for 72.5 percent of the cost of premiums for full-time employees - or pay a fine. Similarly, individuals would have to obtain coverage or face a fine of up to 2 percent of their gross income above a set income level. Exclusions would be provided for small businesses, and the poor - those between 133 and 400 percent of the poverty level - would get help in paying for coverage.

The public option is opposed by Republicans who say such a government-run program would drive private insurers out of business, leaving the public option as the only choice for consumers. Democrats argue that the public option is necessary to keep private insurers on their toes and drive down soaring prices.

“I can’t wait to talk to anybody who is fighting this public health insurance program,” Mr. Rangel said. “[The program is] going to be competitive.”

Mr. Miller called the public option an “important, important component of real health care reform.”

Mr. Waxman said the program would not operate on government subsidies and run like a private insurance company. It will likely use Medicare as a basis for reimbursements, but those will “probably” increase over time. But he said details haven’t been determined yet.

Mr. Obama praised the bill and joked that he wanted a health care bill for Father’s Day.

“This proposal would improve the affordability, availability, and quality of health care and represents a major step toward the our goal of fixing what is broken about health care while building on what works,” he said in a statement.

Republicans knocked the plan as being too expensive and said it would prompt private insurers to go out of business.

“The Democrats are refusing to reveal the price tag of this bill or how they will pay for it, but it is obvious it will cost well over $1 trillion,” said Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee. “We will certainly need to examine the details, but I fear this plan will force tens of millions of Americans to lose their current health care coverage.”

Industry and advocacy groups were split. The insurance industry said it is concerned about the public plan, while AARP praised it as a good first step.

The three committees - Ways and Means, Education and Labor, and Energy and Commerce - are expected to begin hearings next week to hammer out the details. If the bill passes the House, it would have to be merged with the Senate bill.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, one of two Senate panels working on health care legislation, ended its third day of debate over its bill at noon Friday, again beset by partisan gridlock.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, acting chairman in Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s absence, warned he is not going to be taken advantage of as Republicans loaded the bill - only one-third complete - with more than 300 amendments to be discussed.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, ranking Republican on the committee, complained that the minority party was been left out of the drafting process.

The Senate Finance Committee, working on a bill of its own, is expected to debate its legislation after the Fourth of July recess. It is trying to pare the cost of its bill to $1 trillion.