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

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rockefeller And Wyden: Senate Finance Holdouts

Ezra Klein had two very good interviews today, with Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Ron Wyden, detailing their concerns with the Senate Finance bill and how they hope to change it. I know that people are getting bent out of shape about the emphasis on the Finance Committee bill when four other committees have jurisdiction, but right now, it's the only committee left to report something out, Wyden and Rockefeller sit on the committee so they represent the best hope for improving that version, and let's be honest, the White House is certainly using Baucus' bill as a framework, with the hope to at least just get it out of there. So it's important to take a look at their concerns.

Wyden, who like Rockefeller spent time at the White House this week, emphasized affordability concerns, like most other Democrats have. But Wyden also wants his proposal for Free Choice in the bill, allowing anyone to buy insurance off the exchange, not just those who don't get coverage through an employer. I thought he answered the concerns about the "end of the employer-based system" (you say that like it's a bad thing) pretty well:

Let me ask you about some of the concerns people have on this bill. One is that it will hasten the decline of the employer-based system. Young workers will leave quickly for cheap, catastrophic plans on the exchange. Workplaces will be left with older, sicker workers, and they won’t be able to continue offering health-care insurance.

That just doesn’t make sense, either from an economic standpoint or the nature of American life. First, companies will continue to see good benefits as a recruitment tool. It remains a primary way to attract young, talented workers. Second, as we look at this in terms of who would leave, I don’t get the sense that young, healthy workers will be the first to traipse off. Are they really going to be the ones to fill out the forms and contact the exchanges and all that? I think the most likely to go shopping are middle-class people who are pinched right now. We’ve also put into the bill safety valves for any worst-case scenario: after-the-fact risk adjustment that will review who stayed and who left and make adjustments based on that fact.

If what we’re saying is that we can’t find a sweet spot between blowing everything up in 15 minutes and telling people that you can’t improve your situation and have more choices, we’re not doing our job. And I think this is that sweet spot.

Wyden also spoke strongly against the "free rider" position, and said he is working with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities to improve it.

Rockefeller, who has become the stand-in for liberals on health care in the Senate, has a whole different set of concerns, while still keying on affordability.

There are a number of big things. The Children's Health Insurance Program is put into the exchange. That's like putting it into a farmer's market. It loses its defined benefits. And children need defined benefits.

Obviously the public option. I feel very strongly about that as a discipline on the private health insurance market. The public health insurance option doesn't have to make a dime. It doesn't have to make Wall Street happy or shareholders happy. It just has to sell a product at cost. That will put pressure on private insurance companies to bring down their premiums. What's the alternative? My staff has done extensive research on co-ops and everyone says they can't do health insurance. The best health care co-op exists in the state of Washington, and both of Washington's senators are adamantly for a public option. That ought to tell you something.

Another issue is that 46 percent of the American people have health insurance from fairly large companies that self-insure. And they're not included in the regulations. They have to have protection from preexisting conditions and lifetime caps and rescissions too. People hear that the regulations in the bill don't apply to these companies and they think it's not possible. But it's true. And it's almost half of the insurance market!

Another piece is the MedPAC proposal. if you really want to be honest about it, eight to 10 percent of the members of Congress understand health care. At maximum. I chaired the intelligence committee, and health care makes it look like riding on a tricycle it's so complicated. So what you have is lobbyists picking on congressmen who don't know health-care reform, and they say, you know what, you could get a lot more jobs in your state if you only put more money into oxygen or a certain medical device. If you're going to do Medicare right, understanding that the trust fund is going to go downhill in 2016, you can't have Congress making these decisions. You need professionals.

My understanding is that MedPAC is in the Baucus bill, but I could be wrong. The self-insurance thing is something I discovered only recently. Large conglomerates like Disney and GE run their own insurance companies, essentially, contracting out to a health insurer to do the billing, at a fixed rate. So the profit that an insurance company could make off of insuring the employees of a large company is actually going to that large company themselves. They are running a small profit center off of their own employees. And that seems insane to me. So Rockefeller is right to bring this up.

Rockefeller did offer this bit of optimism, though.

What's the mood in the Democratic Caucus like right now?

There's very hot discussion. At the second-to-last meeting with Baucus, Democrats really let loose at Baucus. When you're getting close to the time you need to vote, public policy takes on a new type of intensity. Baucus, to his credit, had another meeting last night, and it was the best meeting we've ever had with the chairman. He told me they'd make sure CHIP is preserved. He knows he needs our votes. That's why I said I wouldn't vote for the bill. Democrats need leverage.

Rockefeller added that Olympia Snowe is getting hammered by Republican leadership for her dalliances with supporting the bill. Maybe that's why she laid down a subtle hint that "the party left me" and maybe she'd be better off elsewhere.

The fact that some Democrats are getting louder about what they would and would not accept is extremely healthy for this process. Maria Cantwell said yesterday that she wouldn't vote for a bill without a public option, and like Rockefeller and Wyden she's on the Finance Committee. Ultimately, progressives should encourage those who want to bring the bill back to the center of the Democratic caucus and away from being a Republican-lite bill.

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