WASHINGTON BUREAU — The Senate Finance Committee and three House panels hammered away today at their versions of health system legislation.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, today said Thursday that he hopes to have a bipartisan deal on a health care reform bill by the end of the day.
Baucus made the remarks after huddling for about 2 hours with the 5 Finance Committee members most closely involved in the negotiations.
But Baucus made his statement as the health insurance industry was attacking a proposal to defray some of the cost of new health programs by imposing $100 billion in taxes or fees on insurers.
The industry blasted the proposal, which was offered Wednesday by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. – 3 members of the Senate Finance Committee.
Sens. Kurt Conrad, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, later said they also could support some kind of levy.
Schumer, Menendez and Stabenow said Congress “must rein in” insurers, by tightening regulation and increasing market competition.
They justified the idea of imposing a new tax on health insurers by contending that the health insurance industry has been “a big part of the problem” of high uninsured and high costs, and “now must be part of the solution.”
Since 2001, health insurance profits have increased 418% and premiums have doubled, the proposal supporters argued.
The proposal supporters said they were not “drawing lines in the sand” over the design of the fee, but they suggested that, depending on how it was designed, it could raise $100 billion.
Because private insurers stand to gain the most from the influx of millions of consumers that would be generated by health care reform legislation, the industry should kick in for part of the cost, proposal supporters said.
“Our broken health care system is working all too well for many private health insurers,” Schumer said. “They need to become a better partner as we work to enact a health care reform bill without adding to the deficit. It only makes sense that the health insurance industry, which stands to gain over 40 million new consumers under a reformed system, should pay its fair share,” he said.
Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, said that the health insurance industry already has made significant concessions in an effort to support health reform initiatives, and that a new tax would be inappropriate.
The industry has embraced reforms and “worked very hard to embrace the concerns of the American people,” Zirkelbach said.
He said the industry has proposed new market rules and consumer protections “that would fundamentally reshape health plan business practices.”
These proposals include guaranteeing access to coverage for applicants with pre-existing conditions, discontinuing rating based on a person’s health status or gender, and mandating that individuals have coverage.
“We have outlined specific and far-reaching initiatives to help bend the health care cost curve by simplifying policies and procedures so that physicians and hospitals can focus on patient care,” Zirkelbach said. If implemented broadly, “these reforms are game changers and will have a similar impact that ATMs had on banking.”
Zirkelbach added that health plans are currently taxed at both the federal and state levels, including assessments that help fund high-risk pools in 30 states.
“As families and small businesses struggle during the current economic slowdown, now is not the time to impose new fees on health care coverage that will make coverage less affordable,” Zirkelbach said.
“To make health care more affordable policymakers should focus on initiatives that promote value and make the system work better and more efficiently,” he added. “We need to enact delivery system reforms that reward providers for improving health outcomes, encourage people to live healthier lifestyles, and better coordinate care for patients with chronic conditions.”
OVER IN THE HOUSE
The House committees working on health system bills are the Ways and Means, Education and Labor, and Energy and Commerce committees.
The Education and Labor Committee passed an amendment to speed up the bill’s guarantee of access to health insurance for people with pre-exisiting medical conditions.
The bill as written would have stopped insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, beginning in 2012. The panel agreed Thursday to move up the implementation date for group plans to 6 months after the bill takes effect.
That was one of about 50 amendments before the committee, which planned to meet throughout the day.
The road in the House Energy and Commerce Committee could be rockier than elsewhere. A group of fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats holds half a dozen seats on that committee, and those Blue Dog Democrats are expressing concerns about the cost of the bill and other issues.
House and Senate leaders hope to get bills passed before lawmakers leave for their month-long August recess, and they hope to have a final, compromise version ready for President Obama to sign by October.