Transcript: Health On The Hill – September 21, 2009

JACKIE JUDD: Good day. I’m Jackie Judd with Health on the Hill, a conversation about efforts to pass health care reform legislation in Congress. Joining me today, Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News and Eric Pianin, also of Kaiser Health News. Welcome to you both as always.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Hello.

ERIC PIANIN: Thank you.

JACKIE JUDD: The markup in Senate Finance begins tomorrow, an avalanche of amendments.

MARY AGNES CAREY: An avalanche, more than 500, and they accomplish all the things that you would expect all the elements of the debate; proponents of a public plan want to have that in the bill, scrap the co-op approach, and have a public plan from the very beginning. People who think that the subsidies in the Bill don’t do enough, aren’t generous enough, want to improve them. That will certainly be the subject of many amendments. There are some opponents to the individual mandate. There are some members that want to get rid of the Medicaid expansion. And also the Medicare Commission. That is all part of the Bill.  So, whether or not we will have every one of these amendments offered, I don’t think they will go that far, but will certainly begin what I expect to be a pretty lengthy markup into the Bill.

JACKIE JUDD: Is this an expected part of the process, certainly filing amendments, but over 500, or does this say something about the continuing difficulty of getting a Bill where more than 60 senators or at least 60 can get behind?

MARY AGNES CAREY: I think you are absolutely right. I think it shows that there are very deeply held — there’s a very deep philosophical divide on this Bill. What is the role of government? What should you require individuals to do, for example the individual mandate? Are you asking enough of employers or is the free rider provision that is in the Bill, which would require an employer who has more than 50 workers to help offset the cost of a subsidy if one if his workers got the subsidy?
I think that it just shows that the difficulty in the Senate getting bipartisan support. We have talked a lot about the Group of Six, the three Democrats, the three Republicans, the Finance Committee that have met. So far, none of those Republicans have come out and endorsed this Bill.

JACKIE JUDD: Eric, over the weekend, President Obama more than lent his voice to the debate. He appeared on a record five talk shows on Sunday. Did he move it forward? Did he say something new, surprising?

ERIC PIANIN: Well he did appear on five networks. He wasn’t on Fox News, though, which was a very interesting part of their ongoing squabble. I am not sure that he advanced the ball all that much. I think that these appearances come on the heels of his address to the joint session of Congress a week ago, he’s still aiming his remarks largely above the Congress and to the American people to –

JACKIE JUDD: To keep the public focused on this.

ERIC PIANIN: To keep them focused on it, calm people down, maybe try to undercut some of the criticism that he is receiving from conservatives and the Republican Party and I think that what was interesting about the interviews was that he was frustrated. As he indicated in his interview with George Stephanopoulos, probably his one regret is that he still hasn’t been able to explain his policies adequately to the American people so that they can get their arms around it, so they can understand this complicated plan. I think he is also annoyed by suggestions that what he is trying to do is impose sort of a back door tax on the middle class by imposing mandates on individuals to buy insurance and raising taxes on certain high end health care policies to help pay for the plan. I Think he is sort of dealing with this frustration of trying to explain a very complicated plan in a limited time, and also undercutting his critics who are really trying to paint this as excessive government spending and overreaching by the Federal Government.

JACKIE JUDD: As for the rest of the week, who are we going to hear from in the Administration?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Vice President Joe Biden will be out talking about the President’s health plan as will Nancy-Ann DeParle and Kathleen Sebelius. Of course, Nancy-Ann DeParle is head of the White House Office of Health Reform and Kathleen Sebelius is the HHS secretary. I think they will continue to talk about health care and the President’s plan as will all members of the Administration.
And let’s not forget that First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech last week talking about health care as a women’s issue. It’s important for women to be engaged. Women often are the governess, if you will, of the health care matters in a family, and it’s very important on the issues of pre-existing conditions. She talked about women and families and I think that we will hear more from her in the months ahead.

JACKIE JUDD: Why do you think the White House decided to bring the First Lady into the debate?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Why not? She’s very articulate. I think she is a wonderful spokeswoman for the Administration. She has great ideas and she used to work in the health care system at a hospital in Chicago.

JACKIE JUDD: So she brings that credibility to the conversation.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Absolutely.

ERIC PIANIN: On the other hand, she doesn’t want to get too deep into the weeds in discussing the various plans and she doesn’t want to become the Hillary Clinton of the Obama Administration drive for health care reform.

JACKIE JUDD: Eric, one last question to you having to do with Senator Olympia Snowe, a pivotal voice in the Senate on this – where do things stand with her?

ERIC PIANIN: Well, the Administration and Max Baucus are working day and night to try to woo her, win her over, get her support. It is a critical vote. She is the only Republican who is likely to join forces with the Administration on this. It’s not a done deal, but she has sent enough signals, indications that her vote is gettable. I think that she has made it very clear that she is very concerned about the overall cost of the plan. She wants some kind of a backup plan, a possible trigger of the public option.

JACKIE JUDD: That was one of the 500 plus amendments, right?

ERIC PIANIN: Exactly. She is very concerned that if all else fails, if the co-ops and all these other proposals for extending health insurance to the millions of uninsured Americans fails, then this will be a fallback position. So that will be an amendment that she is offering and I am certain she will get a lot of support from the Democrats on that.

JACKIE JUDD: Okay, thank you both. And thank you for joining us. I’m Jackie Judd.

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