- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee circulated a preliminary framework for a health care overhaul over the holiday weekend that calls for insurance cooperatives instead of a public insurance plan, and the “gang of six” bipartisan negotiators are expected to deliberate on it Tuesday.

The long-awaited framework, based on committee negotiations over the past several months in a small room in the back of Committee Chairman Max Baucus’ Senate office, comes in at $900 billion over 10 years, less than the other proposals on Capitol Hill, and reduces the deficit within 10 years, according to a Capitol Hill source with knowledge of the offer.

The draft, considered essential to getting President Obama’s top issue back on track, contains many of the elements expected: the creation of insurance cooperatives instead of a public insurance plan, insurance industry reforms, a health insurance exchange and an expansion of Medicaid. The plan is expected to impose a tax on insurance companies that provide the most elite coverage plans.

“This package controls health care spending in the long run, so health care costs will be far less than they would be if the current system remains unchanged,” the source said.

Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat, stressed to the group that the proposal is not final and that members were encouraged to suggest modifications, as long as they didn’t drive up the cost, without payment offsets.

Mr. Baucus said in July that the bipartisan group would have a deal by Sept. 15 or prepare a Democrat-only proposal. But in reality, that deadline become less important last week when White House officials announced President Obama would issue a rare speech to a joint session of Congress, scheduled for Wednesday.

In the highly anticipated speech, Mr. Obama is expected to “draw lines in the sand,” according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, regarding which reform provisions he would accept or not. Mr. Obama reiterated his interest in the public insurance plan in a Labor Day speech Monday.

But Mr. Obama has kept a close eye on the conversations in the Senate Finance Committee’s group, frequently talking with Mr. Baucus by phone and meeting with the group at the White House.

The group’s actions have been highly anticipated by other lawmakers, too, as the other four committees with jurisdiction over health care have passed legislation with no Republican votes.

The plan would differ largely from the House reform bill, which would tax high-income individuals and create a public plan. House members have been reluctant to vote for any new tax on individuals, particularly when the Senate Finance Committee is likely to spurn the idea.

Republicans have put pressure on their three participants in the talks - Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine - not to accept the deal.

The framework, short of a formal proposal by the chairman, is based on months of talks between the group members, now dubbed “the bipartisan six.” The group also includes Democrats Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

The proposal would also create health insurance exchanges, a common place for individuals to purchase coverage. It’s similar to the exchanges created in other bills, but does not include the controversial public option. Instead, the plan would create insurance co-operatives that individuals could choose instead of traditional private insurers.

It includes many of the insurance industry reforms favored by both parties, including a ban on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The plan would expand Medicaid coverage to 133 percent of the poverty level, throwing many more Americans onto the system for the poor. Health affordability tax credits would be given to low- and middle-income families to help them purchase private coverage.