Aug. 3 (Bloomberg) — Congressional Democrats, already behind in their bid to revamp the U.S. health-care system, will spend an August break trying to resolve discord within their party, fending off Republican attacks and taking on insurers.
House members left Washington on July 31 after the last of three committees approved the legislation, setting the stage for a September floor vote. The Senate adjourns on Aug. 7 and has given up on getting plans through both of its panels before the recess, breaking President Barack Obama’s deadline for legislation.
Democratic leaders are seeking a united front for Obama’s top domestic priority against Republicans, who charge it will raise taxes and limit choices for care. They’re also confronted with intraparty quarrels over issues such as whether to create a new government-run insurance option and how to pay for extending coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans.
“The Republican scare tactics out there have had an impact, but we are going to get out the story and the truth,” Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a House Democratic leader, told reporters last week.
Lawrence Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council, said health care reform is “a central issue in long-term deficit reduction.”
“It’s the thing that’s most important for business’s competitiveness and for workers’ take-home pay,” Summers said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday.
Health-care reform alone will not bring the deficit under control, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program. Geithner left open the possibility that additional revenue may be sought through raising taxes on people making less than $250,000. Obama had pledged during his campaign not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000.
“We can’t make these judgments yet about exactly what it’s going to take and how we’re going to get there,” Geithner said.
Lawmakers will face a public skeptical about the plan’s effect on quality of care, costs and medical options. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 69 percent of Americans say they are concerned their care may get worse. The July 24-July 28 poll of 1,050 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Before the House began its recess, Obama’s chief political adviser, David Axelrod, conferred with Democrats about the health-care message lawmakers and the administration will take to the American people.
A political strategy memo distributed to House Democrats suggested that one tactic for wooing voters will be targeting insurers. It advised them to tell people the legislation “will hold insurance companies accountable” by barring co-payments, discrimination against those with pre-existing medical conditions or termination of benefits “because you get sick.”
Insurers “are the major opposition to reform,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “We know what we are up against is going to be carpet-bombing, slash and burn, shock and awe” by the companies “to hold onto their special advantage.”
h?q=Robert+Zirkelbach&site=wnews&client=wnews&proxystylesheet=wnews&output=xml_no_dtd&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&filter=p&getfields=wnnis&sort=date:D:S:d1″>Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a Washington-based trade group, said, “The attacks against health insurers are politically motivated and ignore the significant contributions our community has made to the health-care reform process.”
Before the Senate recess, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus plans to keep convening his group of six negotiators seeking a bipartisan compromise. He said options the group is considering to extend coverage to almost 50 million uninsured Americans and curb health-care costs that make up a sixth of the economy would cost about $900 billion over 10 years.
Any deal they reach would be melded with a plan that passed the Senate health committee on a party-line vote. If they can’t strike a bipartisan accord, Senate leaders might push for a Democratic measure so the full chamber can vote.
After the floor votes, the Senate and House would still need to reconcile their different versions of the legislation, before sending a measure to Obama.
Plans emerging in both the House and Senate require that all Americans get health insurance and embrace nonprofit cooperatives to help achieve that goal. Senate finance panel negotiators may drop the idea of a government-run program, the so-called public option, in favor of the co-ops, while the House plan includes both.
Leaning Against Mandates
Senate negotiators are leaning against requiring employers to offer coverage or pay a penalty, and a deal struck on the House Energy and Commerce Committee scales back a previous mandate so only the biggest businesses face fees.
The House legislation calls for a surtax on the wealthiest Americans, graduating from 1 percent on couples whose income exceeds $350,000 a year to 5.4 percent for those who bring in more than $1 million.
Among the most contentious issues is the public option that would compete with private insurers such as Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc.
To get the plan through his panel, energy and commerce Chairman Henry Waxman agreed to require the new program to negotiate rates with care providers the way private insurers do, instead of pegging them to the lower rates of Medicare, the federal program for the elderly. That drew fire from Democrats who said consumers wouldn’t get the best deal.
The panel also amended the legislation to require the federal government negotiate prices with drugmakers such as New York-based Pfizer Inc. under Medicare. And it included a provision that insurers in a newly formed health exchange receive prior approval before raising premiums a certain amount.
Pelosi said there’s time to reconcile the House measures.
“They have their different characteristics, but they are over 80 percent compatible,” she said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” which aired this weekend. “We will merge them over August.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Kristin Jensen in Washington at email@example.com