- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

Delivering a dose of good news to Senate Democrats, Congress’ nonpartisan scorekeeper said Wednesday that the Finance Committee’s health care reform plan would cost significantly less than $1 trillion over 10 years, improve the federal deficit and cover 94 percent of Americans.

The long-awaited report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was welcomed by Democrats, who have faced criticism over the potential price tag of tackling health care, and for Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who had said he would pass a bill only if it didn’t harm the budget in the long run.

“That’s good news,” said Mr. Baucus. “CBO says it will reduce the deficit by $81 billion - reduce the deficit by $81 billion - in the first 10 years. CBO further says it will further reduce the deficit in the second 10 years - that is, bend the cost curve downward inside 10 years - an objective that I’ve been pursuing and I dare to say the majority of the members of the committee have been pursuing.”

But it’s unclear whether the new report garnered any additional votes on the Finance Committee, which held off a vote on final passage of its reform bill until it had the analysis.

CBO said the health care bill would cost $829 billion over 10 years, but that would be more than offset by increased taxes on high-cost private insurance plans and cuts to some government health care payments. The plan would ensure that 94 percent of Americans have health coverage.

Republicans said the bill would impose substantial new costs on consumers’ insurance premiums and states’ Medicaid expenses.

“Premiums are going to go up, first of all, because of the taxes that are in here,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, adding that insurance companies are likely to pass on their new expenses to consumers. “A lot of these insurance companies don’t have margins. In my state they have a margin of 1 percent.”

But the deficit-positive stamp of approval from CBO opens the door to a vote for final passage in the committee, which is the last of five congressional panels to take up President Obama’s top legislative priority.

“Today’s news from the Congressional Budget Office on the Finance Committee’s bill is another important step down the road toward enacting comprehensive health insurance reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “After nearly 60 years, we are closer than ever before to delivering Americans access to quality, affordable health care in a fiscally responsible way.”

Mr. Baucus said late Wednesday that he has not scheduled a vote but previously indicated he’ll give members of his committee time to review the CBO analysis. Republicans want 72 hours.

Republicans also expressed concern over the $33 billion in new Medicaid expenses that will be tacked on to the states’ costs over 10 years. Under the bill, more people will be eligible for Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor.

“That’s going to put an unfunded mandate on the states,” Mr. Grassley said, calling it “a major problem.”

Mr. Baucus said everyone must contribute to universal coverage, including the states.

“The sharing in this bill is very fair,” he said.

The reform bill would be paid for through a cut in Medicare expenditures, which Democrats say would come from chopping waste and abuse. It would also raise $201 billion from new taxes on insurance companies over 10 years and $110 billion in other taxes, according to the report.

The committee, during its debate, dramatically reduced the penalties that would be imposed for refusing to buy health insurance - from $3,800 to $750 for an individual - out of concern that it would be too much of a burden on low- and middle-income Americans. But the changes also raised concern that the altered bill would not cover as many Americans. Proponents of universal coverage say that one of the keys to substantial health care reform is getting coverage to as many people as possible.

CBO found that the bill would ensure that 94 percent of “nonelderly Americans” have health insurance coverage.

“That’s very good news,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat. “Shows that the amendments we adopted to reduce the penalties [on individuals who refuse to buy insurance] did not reduce coverage.”

By 2019, the bill would reduce the number of “nonelderly people” without insurance by 29 million, leaving just 25 million without coverage. Elderly are covered under the government’s Medicare program. About a third of the 25 million without insurance in 2019 would be illegal immigrants.

Insurance companies, which favor the requirement to obtain coverage as it would provide them millions of new customers, said the weakened mandate would result in fewer people obtaining coverage.

“A weak mandate, as included in the amended Senate Finance Committee bill, would encourage people to wait until they are sick to purchase coverage,” the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association said in a statement. “This will drive up premiums for everyone.”

CBO said the number of people getting insurance through their jobs or buying coverage on their own “would decline by several million.” The report also said 23 million people would purchase coverage through the new insurance exchanges created under the bill and the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program rolls would expand by 14 million people.

Republicans, long opposed to the Democrats’ reform plans, said the CBO analysis only underlies their claims that the plan would cut Medicare coverage and put government in control of health care.

“This partisan Finance Committee proposal will never see the Senate floor since the real bill will be written by Democrat leaders in a closed-to-the-public conference room somewhere in the Capitol,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement. “The real bill will be another 1,000-page, trillion-dollar experiment that slashes a half-trillion dollars from seniors’ Medicare, raises taxes on American families by $400 billion, increases health care premiums, and vastly expands the role of the federal government in the personal health care decisions of every American.”

The only Republican who hasn’t ruled out voting for the bill in committee, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, said she’s encouraged by her first glance at the report, which was released Wednesday afternoon.

“Just in looking at the number - $829 [billion] - well that’s, you know, it’s less than what we started with,” she said. “But we have a lot to review in terms of policy and a number of other issues.”

• Stephen Dinan and Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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