Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The "Real" Health Care Reform Bill Is Being Sculpted In Secret

Despite being the only Republican vote in favor of the Max Baucus Senate Finance Committee health care reform proposal yesterday, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is likely to be excluded from the meetings of Democratic congressional leaders as they take the five lumps of pla-dough they have been handed by three House and two Senate committees, and attempt through Congress' byzantine legislative processes to sculpt them into a final piece of legislation which can garner the required number of votes in House and Senate roll calls before delivery to the Oval Office for President Obama's signature.

Why exclude her? Well, the Democrats don't want their secret deliberations disclosed to Republican talk show hosts, the press, and opposing Republican leaders in either chamber until their undoubtedly contentious negotiations are completed, and they come up with a single version of the legislation which they think can pass both the House and the Senate. After all, the real policy disputes over the details of this new law divide the Democrats from each other far more than they divide the Republicans from the Democrats.

Going forward, the process will probably look like this: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has only two versions of the legislation to merge, and says he expects to bring something to the Senate floor the week after next. House leaders will wait to see what the Senate passes before completing merger of their three bills, since they don't want to pass a House bill which would only die aborning in the Senate. Once the House sees what the Senate has passed, leaders there can bring either the Senate version, or a similar version highlighting only those policy differences they think they can push through the conference committee, to the House floor. Until a conference committee report emerges on this one, most Representatives and Senators, like the ordinary citizens outside the beltway, will have no idea at all what is being voted on.

We do know the final bill will require all citizens to buy health insurance, either through their employers, or individually, or pay a fine in the form of additional taxes. We don't know how big the fine will be. We also don't yet know whether or not the final measure will require employers to provide health insurance to employees, or whether it will include a government run health insurance company to compete with private insurers for premium dollars from those uninsured who will be forced to have coverage under the new law.

Most significantly, we don't know how Congress will ultimately raise the cash to pay for all this. The Senate version imposes a 40% tax on health plans costing over $8,000/year for individuals or $21,000/year for families, while the House increases income tax rates for those individuals earning over $500,000/year or families earning over $1 million/year.

Health insurers and labor unions have already come out strongly against the Senate Finance Committee bill. Unions, which often have negotiated hefty health plan benefits for their members, strongly oppose the "Cadillac health plan tax" in the Baucus measure, as do business groups, which don't want to lose generous benefit packages as a way to attract the most talented work force. Health insurance companies say the Finance Committee bill penalties are too low to force the healthiest young folks to buy health insurance, and that premiums will skyrocket because only the sick uninsured will become new health insurance customers.

The saddest fact of all is that there is still no commitment from either House or Senate leadership to give Senators and Congressmen, much less average citizens, sufficient time to read over the final legislation before either chamber votes on it.
blog comments powered by Disqus