As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Affordability Changes On The Way?

A bunch of Senate moderates praised Max Baucus for his health care bill yesterday, leading many to believe that Baucus-care wasn't totally dead. But there was an important caveat - the letter says, "While we each have outstanding concerns we wish to see addressed, Senator Baucus has taken an important and critical step forward with this legislation." It looks like the major concern is affordability. Olympia Snowe, one of those moderates, expressed as much in today's New York Times as well as the Washington Post.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, voiced the same concern. In an interview with The New York Times and CNBC, Ms. Snowe said that for her to support the bill, “there would have to be more subsidies” for low- and middle-income people and that she was trying to figure out how to pay for them.

Ms. Snowe said “the time has come” to pass comprehensive health legislation. But she added that it was important to get the policy and the details right, because they would affect every American.

Max Baucus has signaled an openness to work on the affordability issue.

Specifically, Baucus is talking to Democratic members of his committee about addressing one of their chief complaints about the bill — that it won't do enough to make insurance affordable to the middle class. That's a crucial question, because the legislation would, for the first time, impose a requirement that virtually everyone have some kind of coverage or face a fine. Under Baucus' bill, the government would provide some help-giving subsidies to help those earning up to three times the poverty level (in other words, a family of four making as much as $66,000 a year) buy insurance and setting caps on their out-of-pocket expenses.

But many in his party say that help doesn't go far enough — especially in comparison with the version that the House is working on, which would provide assistance for those earning up to 400% of the poverty level (or a family of four making $88,000). "We're working to address that concern," Baucus said, adding that one idea "very much on the table" is to increase the refundable tax credits for those purchasing insurance. That, however, would likely increase the overall price tax for the measure, which in its current form would cost $774 billion over the next decade, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

Karen Tumulty gets at the main point here. Snowe has talked a lot about affordability, and wants to expand coverage subsidies. But she doesn't want to spend any more money on the bill, which in order to raise the subsidies, you would have to do. From the other side of this, Democrats and Republicans want to shrink the tax on high-end insurance policies which, under current health inflation, would quickly hit more average-sized policies. But of course, that's how the bill is paid for in the Baucus plan.

Senators of both parties said Thursday that they would seek significant changes in a Democratic proposal to tax generous high-cost health insurance policies.

The tax, proposed as a way to help finance coverage of the uninsured, would be levied on insurance companies. But the senators said they worried that it would be passed on to individual policyholders, families and employers who buy insurance for their workers.

Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who first proposed the insurance tax, said Mr. Baucus had set the thresholds too low. As a result, Mr. Kerry said, “working folks with a lower level of income will get dragged in,” and the tax could affect union members who have sacrificed pay raises to get health benefits.

Mr. Kerry said the threshold for family coverage should be at least $24,000.

So those inclined to vote for health care want more subsidies in the bill and less taxes on insurers. And I want a pony. But the President laid down a marker of not adding to the deficit, and so in order to do both those things, you need to find another revenue source.

Fortunately, there are several. Just repealing the Bush tax cuts a year early and applying that to health care would save $135 billion dollars. Or using the initial Obama Administration idea of lowering the charitable deduction rate to 28% from 35% would capture something like $300 billion. Or the House's surtax on the wealthy would add even more. There are plenty of options; but will there be the political will?

There's definitely the will to increase the subsidies. The White House is assuring liberal members of that, although not about the public option. The question is, will that be enough to satisfy progressives, particularly in the House? Paul Krugman asks that today.

It would be disastrous if health care goes the way of the economic stimulus plan, earlier this year. As you may recall, that plan — which was clearly too weak even as originally proposed — was made even weaker to win the support of three Republican senators. If the same thing happens to health reform, progressives should and will walk away.

But maybe things will go the other way, and Mr. Baucus (and the White House) will, for once, actually listen to progressive concerns, making the bill stronger.

Even if the Baucus plan gets better, rather than worse, what emerges won’t be legislation reformers can love. Will it nonetheless be legislation that passes the threshold of acceptability, legislation they can vote for? We’ll see.


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