Sen. Grassley Says He Is Confident President Obama Wants Bipartisan Agreement on Health ReformSenate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday said that President Obama during a lunch meeting to discuss plans to proceed with health care reform legislation indicated that he favors a bipartisan solution, the Des Moines Register reports. The meeting also included Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Vice President Joe Biden. Grassley said, "I would say I got a great deal of confidence that the White House prefers a bipartisan agreement," adding, "The implication was that the president needs to be in the center of this thing to move things along" (Beaumont, Des Moines Register, 5/7). He also said, "I think that there's an understanding that our working together is the best opportunity for bipartisanship" (Meckler, "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 5/6).
Grassley during the meeting expressed concern over whether Democrats would use the budget reconciliation process to move reform legislation, despite Baucus previously saying he does not want to use the process. Under reconciliation, legislation can be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, rather than the usual 60 votes. Grassley said, "I brought up the prospects of that happening. There's always a problem in negotiating in good faith and the rug could be pulled under at the midnight hour," but "I can tell you I'm satisfied [Obama] sincerely wants a bipartisan agreement" (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 5/6). Baucus told reporters that he reiterated his opposition to using the tactic during the meeting (Youngman/Young, The Hill, 5/6). However, Grassley also said he told Obama, Baucus and Biden that because reconciliation is a possibility, "It ... put me into the position of negotiating at the same time a Republican alternative," because "if we don't have a bipartisan agreement, we have to have a constructive alternative" ("Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 5/6).
According to Grassley, there was no discussion during the meeting of how a health care overhaul would be funded. He said that "it's an issue we probably all want to avoid but we obviously have to deal with it" (CQ HealthBeat, 5/6).
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday that the Obama administration does not support taking over the health care system entirely, but hopes to create a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers, the Los Angeles Times reports. She said, "Dismantling the private market and having an entirely public option, a single-payer system, I think is not something that the president supports." Sebelius added that a public plan would help cover the nation's uninsured population and help lower the costs and increase the quality of health insurance overall. She said, "Competition helps to promote innovation. It helps promote best practices and also can help to lower costs" (Levey, Los Angeles Times, 5/7). She also said that Obama does not support "dismantling the private market," but rather that he wants to "stabilize the private insurance market" (Pear, New York Times, 5/7).
Republicans oppose such a public option because they believe it would eventually push private firms out of the market, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) during the hearing said, "The rhetoric coming from the administration sounds good, sounds familiar: 'If you like what you've got, you can keep it. We're going to have more choice, more competition in health care,'" but "when you look at what is being advocated here, in particular a public plan option, it just seems ... you're embracing contradictory principles" (Los Angeles Times, 5/7). Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) asked Sebelius if a public plan would put private insurers out of business, causing people to lose their coverage (New York Times, 5/7). Sebelius pointed to several states that allow government workers to choose between private and public coverage plans, adding, "It can work very effectively, and does work very effectively" (Los Angeles Times, 5/7).
When asked about the possibility of changing the tax exemption granted to businesses providing coverage for workers, Sebelius said that Obama is open to "all serious discussions" on the issue. However, she said that such a change "has a huge potential of destabilizing the private market and leaving more Americans uninsured." Baucus has expressed openness to the idea of limiting the exemption. In addition, politicians from both parties and economists have criticized the exemption as "inequitable because its benefits go disproportionately to people with higher incomes," the New York Times reports. Critics claim that subsidizing the cost of insurance "insulates people from the cost of care, increases the demand for it and leads to more health spending," according to the New York Times.
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) after the hearing said there is "no way" he would support taxing health benefits. He also said that he would not consider reducing payments to hospitals as a way to fund a health care overhaul (New York Times, 5/7).
A House Republican health care task force on Wednesday announced several principles that will serve as the foundation for a plan that will be developed over the next few weeks, CongressDaily reports. In a letter to Republicans scheduled to be sent out Thursday, the task force wrote that it will hold between six and seven briefings over the next two weeks before issuing a final version of its overhaul plan, intended to serve as an alternative to Democratic plans. The letter also states, "We know that a government takeover of health care will raise taxes, ration care, let government bureaucrats make decisions that should be made by families and doctors, and eliminate the health coverage that more than 100 million Americans currently rely on." According to CongressDaily, the task force's principles include: opposing the creation of a public option, which it believes would limit patients' ability to choose providers and treatments and force them to drop their private coverage; making insurance accessible and affordable; allowing U.S. residents to keep their current insurance plan; keeping the government from intervening in health care decisions; and promoting prevention, wellness and disease-management programs.
A bipartisan group consisting of 90 House members on Wednesday sent a letter to House leadership asking them to increase Medicare physician payments for 2010, when a 21% reduction is set to take effect, and permanently change the payment formula. The letter adds that the lawmakers will not support health care overhaul legislation funded by a cut to specialty physician payments. According to CongressDaily, some lawmakers have suggested that the payments, which are typically higher than those to primary care physicians, could be a source of funding (Edney, CongressDaily, 5/6).
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) temporarily will fill a seat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that had been left open with the expectation that Al Franken would be named the winner of a disputed Senate election in Minnesota, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Tuesday (Jansen, CQ HealthBeat, 5/6). According to the Providence Journal, "The appointment came as the panel ... nears completion of backstage work that is expected to yield a committee blueprint for comprehensive health care legislation this spring" (Mulligan, Providence Journal, 5/7). Whitehouse said, "Our health care system is in disrepair ... and fixing it is among our biggest and most urgent challenges," adding, "I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and do all I can to help [HELP Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)] and my colleagues move this vital effort forward" (Brady, Roll Call, 5/6).
MSNBC's "The Ed Show" on Wednesday included a discussion with Politico reporter Mike Allen about a memo on health care reform talking points distributed to Republican lawmakers by strategist Frank Luntz (Schultz, "The Ed Show," MSNBC, 5/6).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday reported on congressional efforts to draft overhaul legislation, as well as Sebelius' appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee. The segment includes comments from America's Health Insurance Plans President and CEO Karen Ignagni (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/7).