Senate Dems Say New HELP Bill Lowers Cost Of Health Reform
Key members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a news conference call today to discuss the release of their new health care proposal. It would keep more people in employer-sponsored health plans and cost less than an earlier, heavily-criticized version. The new version is raising questions about the math behind its significantly smaller price tag.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the new HELP proposal issued "after lengthy consultations with the Congressional Budget Office, would cost $611.4 billion over 10 years. The CBO analysis states that 21 million uninsured people would gain coverage under the proposal, but Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who is leading the committee Democrats on health care matters, said the bill combined with Senate Finance Committee legislation would result in coverage of 97% of Americans. The new analysis comes as welcome news to Democrats on the panel, after a June 15 review showed that an earlier draft of the legislation would cost $1 trillion over the 2010-2019 period and cover only 16 million more people than currently insured. There are an estimated 46 million uninsured in the U.S. The vast difference in dollar figures results in large part from a section in the proposal that would slap penalties on employers who don't offer employee health benefits. Under the proposal, firms with 25 or more employees that don't offer coverage would face fees of $750-per-year for full-time workers and $375-per-year for part-time workers... The price of the bill includes neither the cost of expanding eligibility for the low-income Medicaid program nor potential cost savings from new Medicare payment proposals - both of which fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee. Overall, the cost of the bill is expected to increase when melded with the Finance panel's legislation."
The Journal notes that Dodd "said he expects the new legislative proposal to be approved in committee by the end of next week or the beginning of the following week. The Senate Finance Committee is still in negotiations on its version of the bill, which overlaps with the Kennedy-Dodd legislation in many areas. The two panels are expected to meld their bills before the full Senate takes up health-care legislation - which Democrats hope will happen in July" (Yoest, 7/2).
Associated Press: "The total cost of legislation will rise considerably once provisions are added to subsidy health insurance for the poor through Medicaid and physician reimbursement increases under Medicare. Those are under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, where lawmakers have said they want to hold the overall price tag to $1 trillion or less.... Separately, the Finance Committee is at work on a companion measure, although that effort is aimed at achieving a bipartisan compromise. As a result, a government-run option for coverage is unlikely to be included. Negotiations are centered on a proposal for a nonprofit cooperative to sell insurance as a competitor to private companies. Three committees are collaborating in the House on legislation expected to come to a vote by the end of July. That measure is certain to include a government-run insurance option" (Espo, 7/2).
CQ Politics reports: "HELP aides told reporters in a conference call Thursday that an assumed expansion of Medicaid to cover people earning less than 1.5 times the federal poverty level - about $33,075 for a family of four in 2009 - would bring total coverage to 97 percent of the population. The Medicaid expansion is part of a bill under development by the Finance committee. HELP Democrats' assumption may be optimistic; Finance members have said they may have to scale back the Medicaid expansion out of concerns about its cost."
"Democrats have struggled with CBO to get the agency's cost estimates of their legislation down to a less staggering price tag. Dodd alluded to the behind-the-scenes negotiations during the Thursday conference call, at a point when he thought reporters were unable to hear him."This is great news, staff really did a wonderful job," he told other senators who had joined him on the call. "I talked to [CBO director] Doug Elmendorf more times over the weekend, trying to get these numbers. It got to be pretty frustrating. The results are great" (Wayne, 7/2).
Meanwhile, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein writes that the new Senate HELP Committee's health-care reform bill "seems to have everyone confused." He adds: "The importance of this set of numbers can be understood only in terms of the catastrophe that was the last set of numbers. On June 15, the Congressional Budget Office scored an incomplete version of this bill. The office estimated that it would cost $1 trillion over 10 years and cover 16 million people. It would've cost, in other words, 70 percent more and covered 20 percent fewer people. The big question, then, is what accounts for the change? And luckily, there's a simple answer: the employer mandate...." (Klein, 7/2).