Monday, September 21, 2009

Attacks on Baucus health bill signal intact reform effort

intact insurance

WASHINGTON - On the surface, it appears no one is happy with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) - and that may be the best news President Barack Obama has had in months.

Within minutes of release of the Senate Finance Committee chairman's health-overhaul bill Wednesday, the attacks started flying. Liberal Democrats, particularly labor unions, fumed. Republicans denounced the work as pure partisanship.

But behind the rhetoric was a sense that the fragile coalition of industry leaders and interest groups central to refashioning the nation's $2.5-trillion health system remains intact.

Many influential players found elements to dislike in the 223-page document, but not necessarily reasons to kill it. Most enticing, they saw the prospect of 30 million new customers.

At the White House, strategists spoke of a possible path toward success on Obama's centerpiece domestic policy goal. To keep up the pressure, Obama met personally with three lawmakers, who had warned they could not support Baucus' bill.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.), who is upset that Baucus failed to include a public health insurance option, tempered his criticism after a private meeting with Obama. "Nothing is clearer than the president's commitment to providing affordable and effective health care for all Americans, and he and I are united in our efforts to deliver on this promise," he said.

Lawmakers and lobbyists cautioned that Obama remains far from a White House signing ceremony - and that perhaps the greatest danger is death by a thousand legislative changes.

The goal at this point is to keep the legislation moving toward a House-Senate conference committee, in which the administration has its greatest influence over the outcome.

At the heart of the administration's strategy is a collection of deals intended to neutralize interest groups that helped defeat President Bill Clinton's health care overhaul 15 years ago. In each instance, the industry has accepted financial concessions in return for new customers or other protections.

Hospitals, for instance, have quietly accepted about $155 billion in cuts over the next decade in return for promises that they would be exempt from actions taken by a proposed new commission that would pursue additional Medicare savings.

In virtually every instance, industries facing new fees or budget cuts will be rewarded with additional revenue from legislation that could cover 30 million more people, said Emory University professor and Clinton administration official Ken Thorpe. Under Baucus' bill, businesses such as hospitals, drugmakers and insurers face $93 billion in new fees in the next decade.