- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Thursday that he supports “a version” of a public, or government-run, insurance plan, but that it won’t cover illegal immigrants.

“I do support a version” of a public option, he said, adding that’s it’s a “hot-button” issue.

“There’s going to be a lot of trade-offs,” said Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the committee that is expected to write the Senate’s health care reform plan. “This is just so large.”

The idea of a government-run insurance program designed to compete with private insurers is shaping up as a key battleground in the health debate. The Obama administration favors the idea, but private industry groups and many congressional Republicans oppose the concept, saying the public option will dominate the market.

Mr. Baucus, at an event sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, said estimates suggest a health care reform plan would cover 94 percent to 96 percent of all people in the United States, including those who have existing coverage. He said his bill will not include coverage of undocumented immigrants because it’s too “politically explosive.”

Under the current system, health professionals have to deal with billions of dollars in “charity care” provided to people who don’t qualify for aid but aren’t able to make payments for treatment. One of the most-touted reasons for reform is that providing health care insurance coverage keeps low-income people from turning to the emergency room for primary care or health problems that have been put off because they couldn’t afford a doctor’s appointment.

Current estimates put the cost of charity care at about $32 billion each year.

“The goal is to reduce uncompensated care costs,” Mr. Baucus said. But, “hospitals will still have charity care.”

Some argue that excluding illegal immigrants wouldn’t solve that problem. The worry is that illegal immigrants who use emergency rooms but can’t afford payments would still fall under “charity care.”

“The main thing for health care policy, especially in the event of something we’re seeing now, with the possible pandemic, is that health care policy has to include every person to be effective,” said Dr. Jaime R. Torres, president of Latinos for National Health Insurance. “It’s unfortunate that Senator Baucus and the Congress might not have the courage to include the undocumented.”

The Finance Committee is expected to have a proposal ready for debate in mid-June.

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