Health Reform Reaches Playoffs

When the Senate Finance Committee finally approved its version of health care reform on Oct. 13, three months after four other congressional committees had produced their health reform bills, the way was cleared for movement toward the long-awaited floor vote.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) finally got Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to give his conservative bill bipartisan cover as she joined the 13 Democrats on the committee to move the process forward. Snowe cautioned that she could withdraw her support if the Democrats make it more liberal to satisfy their constituents, but she added, “The majority has the votes. It has the votes in the House. It has the votes in the Senate. So it shouldn’t be about the mathematics of vote counting, but rather the mechanics of getting the best policy.”

Exactly right, which is why the Democrats should keep the needs of working families, not insurance companies, in mind when they merge Baucus’ bill with the more liberal bill that emerged from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July. The Baucus bill has some good points, including consumer protections such as limits on copays and deductibles, and federal subsidies to help families purchase coverage up to 400% of the poverty level ($88,000 for a family of four). It also requires that insurance companies cover people regardless of pre-existing conditions and it allows people to shop for insurance within new statewide “exchanges.” But the Baucus bill takes a wrong turn when it proposes to pay for the reforms with new taxes on higher-cost health care benefits, which would put pressure on employers and their workers to reduce benefits. That has drawn opposition from organized labor as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

Most importantly, the bill lacks a public option to keep private insurers honest. Former insurance executive Wendell Potter said that makes the bill a “dream come true for the health insurance industry,” since it forces everyone to buy insurance but it doesn’t force real competition among insurance providers.

Senate Democratic leaders now go to work on merging the Finance and Health committee bills, which is the first round of the playoffs. The Senate bill that goes to the floor should include a strong public option, such as allowing the public to buy into an expanded Medicare program, as the House proposes, and the costs should be paid with a surtax on people making more than $500,000 a year, as the House proposes. And since the House is where tax bills are supposed to originate, it is appropriate for the Senate to defer on those points.

Senate leaders hope to keep all 60 Democratic caucus votes in line to knock down an expected Republican filibuster and get the bill to the Senate floor before Hallowe’en. Then the bill that passes the Senate must be reconciled with the House version (which has yet to pass the House). That House-Senate conference will be the World Series of Health Reform. Unfortunately, it will be played behind closed doors.

The final bill must include some form of public option to compete with private insurance and help keep costs down. Senate Democrats have begun discussions on a compromise approach that would establish a national public option, such as allowing the public to buy into an expanded Medicare program, but they would give individual states authority to opt out of the program.

That might be a good political move, putting the pressure on state Republican leaders to declare whether they would deny their residents the choice of buying into Medicare. But that would require Democrats in red states to promote a populist agenda and — more importantly — if they managed to get in power, they would need to actually pass populist legislation. As we have seen in Congress, that is easier said than done.

One of the right-wing talking points claims that dealing with the public option would make health care like dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles. No, the public option would be like dealing with Medicare. When you show up at the doctor’s office, you would show your Medicare card (just like you otherwise would show your private health insurance card). Then you see your doctor. The process works just fine for our nation’s seniors. And, by the way, opening Medicare to the general public not only would force private insurers to keep their premiums down. It also would help to stabilize the Medicare program for seniors, since it would attract into the system younger and healthier families that are less expensive to cover.

But if conservatives really believe that private insurance companies are more efficient than government insurance programs, let the people decide between Corporate Care and Medicare.

If Olympia Snowe ultimately decides she cannot support the final product, so be it. But Democratic leaders must be prepared to insist on an up-or-down vote, using the reconciliation process, if necessary. If members of the Democratic caucus stray, party loyalty should be considered in making committee assignments next year. That should keep in line potential renegades, including faithless Sen. Joe Lieberman, who on the morning of the Finance Committee vote told Don Imus he opposed the Baucus bill. To support the cause, call your senators and rep via the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121.

Nobel Prize for Most Improvement

It is reasonable to question the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to President Barack Obama after only a few months in office. But when you consider how bad the previous administration must have looked from Oslo’s point of view, the choice is more understandable.

“Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play,” the committee said in its announcement. “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts ...”

Liz Cheney, a former State Department official who worked on Middle Eastern affairs and daughter of the disgraced former vice president, appeared on a Fox “News” panel Oct. 11 to call Obama’s Nobel a “farce” because it reflected the world’s sense that Obama is “ruling in a way that makes sense to the majority of the people of the world. ... I think, unfortunately, they might be right, and I think it’s a concern.” She suggested that Obama send the mother of a fallen soldier to accept the Nobel Peace Prize “on behalf of the US military.”

John Bolton, former arms control diplomat and US ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush Jr. administration who had little use for arms control, diplomacy or the UN, also advised Obama to decline the Nobel prize. “The Nobel committee is preaching at Americans, but they won’t be deceived,” Bolton told National Review. “He should decline it and then ask to be considered again in three or four years when he has a record.” He added, “I was nominated three years ago and I’m still waiting for the call.”

As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2001 to 2005, Bolton managed to derail a 2001 conference to control biological weapons, he pushed to reduce funding for a program to halt proliferation of nuclear materials and his confrontational attitude toward North Korea may have spurred that regime to resume production of nuclear weapons.

With State Department alumni like Cheney and Bolton, it’s no wonder the Nobel Committee thought Obama looked like Gandhi (who never got a Nobel, by the way). Congratulations, Mr. President. Now please get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009


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