- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee’s health care proposal, long seen as the compromise that would restart President Obama’s drive for reform, drew no Republican support, alienated some Democrats and worried members of both parties who feared that its costs were still too high.

The $856 billion, 10-year plan, issued by Chairman Max Baucus on Wednesday, would require nearly all individuals to carry insurance coverage or pay a fine, end insurance companies’ ability to bar people from getting coverage if they have “pre-existing conditions,” establish insurance cooperatives and put incentives in place to encourage employers to provide insurance.

The measure also includes significant new fees and taxes imposed on insurance companies, who stand to gain millions of new customers from the insurance mandate.

Mr. Baucus’ so-called “gang of six” worked for months to craft a plan, but no one else from the group of three Republicans and three Democrats stood alongside Mr. Baucus as he introduced the proposal, which will be the starting point for drafting sessions in the finance panel starting next week.

Mr. Baucus said he plans to continue to push for Republican support and predicted that he would get it and also pass a health overhaul through the Senate.

“This is a unique moment in history where we can finally reach an objective so many of us have sought for so long,” said Mr. Baucus, a Montana Democrat. “The Finance Committee has carefully worked through the details of health care reform to ensure this package works for patients, for health care providers and for our economy.”

Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, two Republicans in the gang of six, criticized Senate Democratic leaders and the White House for not giving the group enough time to continue negotiations.

“I’m disappointed because it looks like we’re being pushed aside by the Democratic leadership so the Senate can move forward on a bill that, up to this point, does not meet the shared goals of affordable, accessible health coverage that we set forth when this process began,” Mr. Grassley said in a statement.

Mr. Grassley said he still has concerns that the bill would open the door to federal funding of abortions and coverage for illegal immigrants. He also said he wants alternatives to the mandate on individuals to obtain insurance and would like to see tougher medical malpractice reforms.

The third Republican in the group and the most likely Republican to back the plan, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, did not offer her support Wednesday but said she planned to continue negotiations.

Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the other Democrats in the group, praised the proposal’s release, but they also said they planned to offer amendments when the Finance Committee begins debating the legislation.

“While this is a very good start, it is not a finished product,” Mr. Conrad said. “That’s why it’s so important that we have an active amendment process both in committee and on the floor of the Senate.”

Mr. Baucus sliced Medicare costs, dumped some subsidies and increased fees to get a price tag less than $900 billion for the health care proposal he announced Wednesday a herculean effort that underscores the critical role cost will play if Democrats are going to succeed in overhauling health care.

Mr. Obama has pledged not to support a bill that isn’t fully paid for through cuts and tax increases, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said that’s the only kind of bill that would be acceptable to them. The Congressional Budget Office, the official scorekeeper for legislation, rushed out a preliminary estimate for the plan, to help the debate.

But Mr. Baucus’ scrimping wasn’t enough to allay congressional skeptics. Fiscal conservatives said his proposal still has too big a price tag. Liberal lawmakers, on the other hand, said the finance chairman needed to toss out too many important provisions, especially a government-sponsored public option and subsidies to help low-income individuals afford insurance, to keep costs down.

“I don’t understand the push to keep this cost-containment below $900 billion,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat. “We’re lowering the bill, but we’re making it impossible for people to purchase health insurance.”

To lower the price tag, Mr. Baucus had to find $507 billion in savings by cutting health care spending on programs such as Medicare and by imposing $349 billion in new fees.

One of those new fees is a 35 percent tax on so-called “gold-plated” insurance plans with individual premiums above $8,000 and family premiums above $21,000. Mr. Baucus expects the fee will make consumers more aware of their health care spending, and considers the levy a key cost-saving measure.

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, objected to the cuts to the Medicare Advantage program, arguing that would deny some seniors the plans they want to keep, and other senators said the fees on Cadillac insurance plans would hurt union workers in their home states.

But even with the cuts, the price tag is still too high for some lawmakers.

“This proposal spends another $900 billion, imposes a job-killing employer mandate that will harm low-income Americans, imposes $349 billion in new taxes, expands insolvent government programs and cuts Medicare by almost half a trillion dollars,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who had originally been trying to work with Mr. Baucus and a group of bipartisan senators to write a bill, but who left the discussions weeks ago.

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat and head of a group of moderate Democrats, was reluctant to commit support to the Baucus plan, and said keeping down costs was his top priority.

“We’ve got to get the deficit under control and we have to use honest accounting and make sure this is actually fully paid for and hopefully get the deficit down over time and certainly doesn’t make it any worse,” Mr. Bayh said.

The Congressional Budget Office said that the proposal would reduce the federal budget deficit by $49 billion in 10 years, as well as drive down health care costs in the United States - the main objective in Mr. Obama’s reform plans.

By 2019, 94 percent of Americans would be insured, up from 83 percent today. About 25 million people would buy coverage and 11 million more would be covered under Medicaid, according to estimates from the CBO.

Mr. Baucus said his proposal falls largely in line with what Mr. Obama spelled out to Congress in his address last week.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the proposal “an important building block” to passing a reform plan and anticipated Republicans could support the plan after amendments.

Few lawmakers were ready to support the legislation Wednesday. Mr. Nelson and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, both members of the Finance Committee, praised the plan as a good start, but said they plan to offer amendments.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and member of the Finance Committee, said he won’t support the bill because it does not have a public insurance plan and it doesn’t have enough aide for the poor who will have to buy coverage.

“There is no way that I can vote for the Senate package for a lot of reasons,” he said, adding that he plans to offer numerous amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada posted on social networking site Twitter that the plan is a “good starting” point, but said he wants to scale back a requirement that states contribute to Medicaid costs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky slammed the legislation.

“This partisan proposal cuts Medicare by nearly a half-trillion dollars, and puts massive new tax burdens on families and small businesses, to create yet another thousand-page, trillion-dollar government program. Only in Washington would anyone think that makes sense, especially in this economy.”

Advocacy groups spoke out against the proposal as well. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group of insurance companies, said new fees for insurers would raise costs for consumers. AARP said the bill would allow for insurers to charge older Americans more for insurance than younger ones, making coverage too expensive for some older people. The AFL-CIO said the proposal “absolutely fails to meet the most basic health care needs” of families.

The Finance Committee’s drafting is expected to be a lengthy one with several of the 23 members of the panel saying they planned to offer significa amendments. But the committee is just the first hurdle. If and when it passes there, the plan would have to be merged with a drastically different bill from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The health care bill does not have the Finance Committee’s co-op, but instead would create a government insurance plan - a controversial measure favored by liberals and shunned by conservatives. Three bills in the House contain a similar provision, as well as a tax on wealthy Americans. None of the plans has generated Republican votes.

The Senate plans would have to be combined and voted upon, mirroring a similar process in the House. Then, the House and Senate plans would be combined, promising congressional leaders a complicated jigsaw puzzle to assemble.

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