Centrist Democrats Issue Policy Proposals for Health Reform, Emphasize Stronger Private Insurance Market
Centrist Democrats in both houses of Congress on Thursday expressed support for a variety of health reform policy proposals that emphasize cost-reduction, The Hill reports. During a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) discussed his views on health care reform and said that "two of the highest priorities should be reducing the cost of health care and improving efficiency in our delivery system." Meanwhile, the New Democrat Coalition -- a caucus of more than 50 House members -- issued a statement of principles that focused on strengthening the private insurance market for people seeking insurance on their own or through employers.
According to The Hill, both Nelson and the New Democrats support a variety of health reform measures that are in line with proposals supported by President Obama and other lawmakers, including significant restructuring of the health insurance market, scaling up national health information technology systems, accelerating the availability of generic medications and funding comparative effectiveness research on medical treatments. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), vice-chair of the New Democrats, said the group will emphasize reforms that reduce health care costs in order to produce "savings that can make the coverage issue doable and sustainable in the long term." Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), co-chair of the New Democrats, added that the group's primary focus is to preserve the employer-based health insurance system. "Individuals and families that are happy with their current coverage (must be) able to keep it," Altmire said.
Nelson on Thursday also discussed the possibility that health reform efforts could include a public plan, saying that he believed such an option would "undermine health care services for millions of Americans and squander this unique opportunity for substantial reform." Kind said that the New Democrats have a broad range of views on the public plan option, adding that many "have their minds open on it."
According to The Hill, the centrist lawmakers' reservations about a public plan will "serve as counterpoints to the increasingly insistent pleas" from other Democrats about including a public plan in health reform legislation. Altmire said that lawmakers will have to wait until the end of the process to make decisions on the public plan and on whether to implement mandates requiring individuals or employers to purchase insurance. The Hill reports that the New Democrats do not have a position on mandates and Nelson "took no definitive stand" on the issue (Young , The Hill, 5/7).
Taxing Health Benefits
Although some lawmakers support levying a tax on employer-provided health benefits, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday "made clear" that he opposed such tax policy changes, the New York Times reports. Opponents of a health benefit tax, who include employer groups and labor officials, claim that such a tax could threaten the current employer-based insurance system and impose additional burdens on employees.
The Times reports that although Obama during his presidential campaign criticized a health benefit tax, the proposal "now has some support in his administration" as an element of health reform efforts. In addition, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) "seems keen on the idea," perhaps because one congressional estimate predicted that the tax could yield $100 billion in revenue over the next five years, according to the Times. Jonathan Oberlander, health policy expert at the University of North Carolina, said, "There aren't that many pots of gold to pay for health reform." According to the Times, lawmakers' challenge in promoting a health benefit tax will be to develop a plan that addresses opponents' concerns either by limiting the tax for high-income individuals or otherwise modifying the proposal (Abelson, New York Times, 5/8).
Summaries of recent news about Baucus and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) discussing health reform appear below.
- Baucus: Baucus on Thursday predicted that the health reform legislation he is preparing will receive at least 70 votes in the Senate as a result of Obama's bipartisan outreach efforts. Baucus said, "I'm very confident that a very large majority of senators and House members are going to vote for a good bill." He added that he thinks Obama will "be quite helpful" in facilitating the bill's passage (Young , The Hill, 5/7). In addition, Baucus said he intends to keep lawmakers "on track" to deliver Obama health reform legislation to sign this year. He said a committee markup hearing is scheduled for June and reiterated his hope to have a bill on the Senate floor before the August recess. According to CQ HealthBeat, Baucus on May 12 will help lead the third and final Senate Finance Committee roundtable session, which will focus on ways to finance changes to the health insurance system (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 5/7).
- Hatch: During a press breakfast sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Thursday, Senate Finance Committee member Hatch expressed concern that Democrats would use budget reconciliation to accelerate the adoption of "Washington-run" health care. Hatch said that he "would prefer to have 50 state laboratories" enact their own overhaul efforts based on their individual situations (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 5/7). Hatch also said regulation of the insurance industry likely would play a major role in health care reform, adding, "To the extent that we can do reasonable regulation to be able to bring about where there's more empathy and more evenness in the system, perhaps, that might be good." In addition, Hatch said that the proposed government-run public plan "is kind of withering away," adding that he believes Democrats have used the public plan idea "as a hammer" to promote more government involvement in health care (Edney, CongressDaily, 5/8).
A webcast of Hatch speaking about health care is available online at kaisernetwork.org.
Houston Chronicle: Some might prefer that health care reform legislation "enjoy wide bipartisan support," but "the health care system has too many moving parts to allow for much ideological tinkering," syndicated columnist Froma Harrop writes in a Chronicle opinion piece. According to Harrop, the Democrats' count in Congress and their ability to use the budget reconciliation process give them "the freedom to design an effective program" that can bring coverage to everyone and "contain spiraling health care costs while maintaining quality of care." Harrop writes, "Better that Democrats go it alone than help create an ungainly beast in the name of compromise" (Harrop, Houston Chronicle, 5/7).
Wall Street Journal: "Americans want a fix" for health care, and the "Democrats promise one," columnist Kimberley Strassel writes in a Journal opinion piece. According to Strassel, Republicans "can't tank the public option simply by complaining it will kill private insurance." She adds that the GOP must "finally elucidate how it plans to allow the private market to work" to improve health care (Strassel, Wall Street Journal, 5/8).
- Washington Times: If, as some experts warn, a government-run public health insurance option eventually runs private insurers out of business, U.S. residents could be left with a single government plan comparable to Canada's, Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, writes in a Times opinion piece. However, Feulner cites research showing that the Canadian government controls costs by rationing care, resulting in many residents waiting extended periods of time for medical care. Feulner concludes, "Let's ensure that policymakers, in their understandable zeal to reform health care, don't make changes that weaken the entire system" (Feulner, Washington Times, 5/8).