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

Monday, September 21, 2009

Health Care Update

Looks like lawmakers are gradually expanding the puny subsidies in the Baucus health care bill:

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, said Monday that he would modify his health care bill to provide more generous assistance to moderate-income Americans, to help them buy insurance.

In addition, Mr. Baucus said he would make changes to reduce the impact of a proposed tax on high-end health insurance policies.

Mr. Baucus, Democrat of Montana, disclosed his plans in an interview a day before the committee is to begin meeting to debate and vote on the sweeping legislation, which is intended to remake the nation’s health care system and guarantee insurance for millions of Americans.

Mr. Baucus said the changes showed that he had heard the criticism of his bill from colleagues, who asserted that many people would be required to buy insurance who could not afford it — even with federal subsidies to help defray the cost of premiums.

“Affordability — that, I think, is the primary concern,” Mr. Baucus said. “We want to make sure that if Americans have to buy insurance, it’s affordable.”

Affordability to Baucus means reducing the limit of policies from 13% of total income to 12% of total income, through subsidies up to 400% of the poverty level. That's at least a start, though still short of what's in the House bills.

As it says above, responding to changes Baucus will reduce the impact of taxing insurance companies, basically by raising the threshold when plans start to hit the tax. But this is paradoxical. Raising the subsidy levels costs money. Raising the tax threshold takes away money. Lawmakers want the bill to protect more people on affordability while taking away some of the money that would pay for those protections. There is a late and familiar entry here, however, and that's Jay Rockefeller's idea to add back in a variation of what the Obama Administration sought all along:

In fairness to Rockefeller, he's got some ideas along those lines.

He's said many times he would be perfectly happy with the sort of financing they have in the House--i.e., a straight-up tax on the rich. And while such a scheme might have trouble in the Senate, Rockefeller is trying gamely to intorduce a more scaled-down version.

Among the amendments he's introduced for this week's Finance Committee hearings is a proposal to cap the deductability of charitable contributions at 35 percent--which would, in effect, reduce the deductability of contributions that very, very wealthy people make to charities. It seems to be a version of what President Obama proposed at the beginning of this process, an idea that still has a lot of merit even though many Senators rejected it out of hand.

Would they reject it again? Maybe not in scaled-back form, which might be enough. In the end, the most likely solution to the funding problem is some sort of combination strategy--a tax that hits expensive health benefits, a tax that hits the wealthy, and, maybe, some sort of tax sugary drinks or tobacco. The new Rockefeller proposal, according to Capitol Hill sources familiar with it, will probably raise about $90 to $100 billion--which is a decent chunk of change and could pay for a lot of new subsidies.

The President wanted to roll the charitable deduction credit back to 28% - exactly where it was during the Reagan Administration, at a savings to the government that could easily top $300 billion over ten years, enough to make the subsidies big enough to make health care truly affordable for everyone. And it would only hit those who make enough money to take advantage of the charitable deduction to begin with. It's really a no-brainer.

Of course, there are more areas of conflict in the bill beyond affordability and financing. There are various amendments in the Senate Finance Committee to add a public option, as well as Olympia Snowe's amendment to add a trigger, and a weak trigger to boot. Obama went on the record saying “I absolutely do not believe that (the public option is) dead," although his close colleague Dick Durbin said today that only a "variation" of it could make it through the Senate. Nancy Pelosi continued her public statements that the public option must be included to pass the House, though House liberals, wary of a bait and switch, asked the Speaker to stand with them when the bill reaches a conference committee. Jerry Nadler reiterated the seriousness of the threat from the progressive side:

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Monday he is optimistic that any healthcare bill from the House will include a public (or "government-run") option, and are undertaking a whip count to test lawmakers' commitment to that measure.

"The public option is still very much alive only because the progressives have stood together and held our ground and said that, regardless of what the President or Leadership says, we won't vote for any bill [without] a public option," Nadler said in a chat online hosted by the liberal AMERICAblog.

Nadler told the blog that 60 lawmakers had pledged to vote against any healthcare bill lacking the public plan, and that liberal Democrats are "undertaking a whip count now to see how firm these pledges are."

While affordability and financing may come to some compromise position that is at least passable, the statements above show that there's no such middle ground for the public option. This may vex the White House, but they will eventually have to show their cards.

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