The highly publicized bipartisan healthcare summit did little to soothe a widening partisan rift on Capitol Hill last week, leaving Democratic lawmakers seeking alternative plans for health reform legislation and Republicans playing defense.
Time for Plan B
Summit stalemate has Dems looking for alternatives
President Barack Obama is expected to announce midweek a revised plan on how to proceed. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said during a news briefing the president would take the “issues they agreed on (at the summit) and add them into a proposal going forward.” While some differences might be impossible to bridge, others, such as provisions on defensive medicine, selling insurance across state lines, and tighter control over fraud and abuse in federal programs, could gain traction.
As it stands, the House and Senate have passed bills that are similar in substance, but further apart on ideology. Congressional leaders have been in a holding pattern on how to meld the two since the loss of a crucial Senate seat in Massachusetts long held by Democrats.
At the same time, Republican leaders again said the process needs to start anew. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who from day one has opposed the Democratic-written bill, said the general public has aligned against the size and scope of the package.
“I don't think public opinion of this magnitude, where people have really paid attention—have been dialed into this issue—they're against it,” McConnell said just minutes after the summit ended.
There are a number of ways Democratic leaders can unstick the process. One would have the House out-and-out pass the bill the Senate passed back in December with the promise that a package of “fix-its” would ride shotgun in a separate bill. That second bill would then go back to the Senate for a vote under reconciliation, a legislative maneuver that effectively allows it to pass on a simple majority vote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sketched out how that scenario might work. Pelosi said House Democrats first need to see the actual substance of a bill and then get assurances that the Senate could pass it on a majority vote. Pelosi added that much of the House's concerns were allayed by the proposal that Obama laid out before the reform summit. “That's a big step forward,” she said, adding that the meeting “took us farther down the path.”
But it's still unclear if House Democrats can pass such a measure. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he and his more liberal colleagues are at odds over many pieces of the Senate's package. “There has to be a public presence,” he said, referring to the inclusion of a public insurance option, an expansion of Medicare or Medicaid or just an overall higher level of government oversight.
Another scenario would have Congress passing a series of smaller bills that are built for speed—and possibly bipartisanship. Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a conservative Democrat, said he favors passing a number of smaller-but-effective bills.
Taylor said a number of “single shot” bills to create drug discounts, extend the age young adults could stay on their parents' insurance and allow Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies are being discussed.
The House saw a glimpse of bipartisanship last week when it passed legislation that would strip the health insurance industry of its special exemption from federal antitrust laws. The bill, which passed on a 406-19 vote, ends the “special treatment for the insurance industry that allows them to fix prices, collude with each other and set their own markets without fear of being investigated,” said Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a sponsor of the bill.
Congress also joined together in questioning insurer rate increases. WellPoint President and CEO Angela Braly defended premium rate increases in California of up to 39% before a House subcommittee. Braly said that rising hospital and physician costs and an aging population are causing average 25% rate increases on the individual market this year for its subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross of California.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius later invited insurance company CEOs to a March 3 meeting on the issue of premiums. Among the invited were Braly and the CEOs of Aetna, Cigna Corp., Health Care Service Corp. and UnitedHealth Group.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.