- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Vague and incomplete information about legislation in Congress has provided ammunition to both supporters and opponents of health reform and generated more heat than light at lawmakers’ town-hall meetings.

The Washington Times has culled some frequently asked questions from those events and has consulted experts to get the answers.

The legislation is likely to change as the debate continues this fall. These answers are based on bills currently pending in the House and plans being developed in the Senate.

Would health care reform establish “death panels” to determine whether Americans, particularly older Americans, are eligible for treatments?

The House bills do not include death panels. They authorize Medicare to cover voluntary consultations between patients and doctors about the type of treatment the patient may want at the end of life, such as resuscitation. The insurance would cover consultations every five years or more often if the patient is ill.

A handful of conservatives, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, say that the consultations would lead to mandated euthanasia, but Democrats as well as groups such as the American Medical Association say they would not.

“This is not encouraging euthanasia,” said Lewis J. Hoch, a partner at the law firm Blank Rome who specializes in health care. “It’s dealing with some difficult issues at the end of life.”

Will people be able to keep their current insurance coverage?

That one’s a tossup. President Obama and congressional Democrats have often repeated the refrain, “If you like your insurance, you can keep it,” but Republicans say the reform plans would threaten the employer-based plans and eventually drive all insurance companies out of business, sending everyone onto the government plan.

The current proposals would require everyone to obtain health insurance that meets a government standard or pay a fine. In nearly all cases, consumers’ existing plans would suffice.

But lawmakers cannot require insurance companies to maintain their existing offerings or require them to stay in business. Indeed, insurance companies argue that the legislation would have the unintended consequence of driving up rates for all consumers.

Would abortions be covered in the public plan established in the House bill?

The original House bill would have allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to determine what would be covered under qualified insurance plans, which could have allowed abortions to be covered with taxpayer money.

But an amendment passed in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s drafting session eliminated that possibility.

The amendment, introduced by Rep. Lois Capps, California Democrat, would prevent taxpayer dollars from being used to cover abortions, except in the case of rape, incest or risk to the mother’s life. That’s the current policy used in Medicaid.

The amendment also says that private insurers would neither be required to offer nor be prevented from offering abortion coverage.

Will illegal immigrants be covered by health care reform?

Anyone in the country illegally would not be covered by the House health care bill, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, told reporters last month that his committee does not plan to cover them either.

How will health care reform, estimated to cost $1 trillion over 10 years, be paid for?

The leading House bill proposes a new tax on wealthy Americans - those reporting annual incomes of more than $350,000 per couple. In addition, cuts would be made to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. The leading Senate plan isn’t as clear on that topic because the Finance Committee has not released any details.

But members of the bipartisan negotiating team on the Finance Committee favor taxing insurance companies that provide the most elite and expensive plans, and also appear to support cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

For his part, Mr. Obama has repeatedly vowed not to sign a health care bill that does not pay for itself. He has endorsed using some combination of cost savings and limiting the tax-free status of charitable donations.

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