On the heels of the Senate health committee's approval Wednesday of a plan to revamp U.S. health care, three House committees with jurisdiction over the issue shifted into action. But the director of Congress' budget office warns the proposals will raise costs.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
The director of the Congressional Budget Office issued a warning to Democrats Thursday that their health care proposals would raise costs, not lower them.
One day after a Senate panel approved its version of the health care reform plan, the first committee to do so, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf gave a dose of bad medicine to a separate committee.
Asked by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., whether costs would be lowered -- also known as "bending the curve" -- Elmendorf responded: "The curve is being raised."
Subsidies to help uninsured people would raise federal health care spending, which is already growing at an unsustainable rate, Elmendorf explained at the hearing. The Medicare and Medicaid cuts that lawmakers have offered to pay for the coverage expansion aren't big enough to offset the cost trend, particularly in the long term, he said.
House Republican Leader John Boehner seized on the comments, calling on Democrats to scrap their plans in light of the assessment.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called it a "wake up call" for Democrats.
"The director of the Congressional Budget Office confirmed today what we have been saying for weeks -- the health care spending plan that some are trying to rush through Congress would actually make things worse," McConnell said.
CBO's numbers come at an inopportune time for Democratic leaders who are trying push through and merge several different health care reform plans in the coming weeks, on orders from President Obama.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voiced frustration with Elmendorf, who in recent months has set back health care efforts with his office's cost analyses of the plans being floated.
"What he should do is run for Congress," Reid said, suggesting he found the CBO estimate to be partisan in its results.
Elmendorf endorsed taxing health benefits as a way of paying for reform, though Obama has spoken out against that idea.
How to pay for the plan is generating a big problem for Congress. The Senate Finance Committee, which is hammering out what could be the only bipartisan bill remaining, is struggling to come up with about $320 billion in revenue to pay for the reforms. Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., was clearly frustrated Thursday and criticized Obama for opposing a tax on employer-provided benefits.
"The president is not helping us," he said.
Meanwhile, House Democrats on Thursday pushed ahead with legislation that would deliver on Obama's promise to remake the health care system and cover some 50 million uninsured, despite concerns from their own party's moderate and conservative lawmakers that the $1.5 trillion plan costs too much.
On the heels of the Senate health committee's approval Wednesday of a plan to revamp U.S. health care, three House committees with jurisdiction over the issue shifted into action.
The Education and Labor Committee passed an amendment to speed up the bill's guarantee of access to health insurance for people with pre-existing 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 six months after the bill takes effect.
It was one of about 50 amendments before the committee, which planned to meet throughout the day to complete work on its portion of the bill by day's end.
The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee also was working on its portion of the overall legislation, which seeks to provide coverage to nearly all Americans by subsidizing the poor and penalizing individuals and employers who don't purchase health insurance.
A third House committee, Energy and Commerce, also was considering the measure Thursday, but the road was expected to be rougher there. A group of fiscally conservative House Democrats called the Blue Dogs holds more than a half dozen seats on the committee -- enough to block approval -- and is opposing the bill over costs and other issues.
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who chairs the Blue Dogs' health care task force, said the group would need to see significant changes to protect small businesses and rural providers and contain costs before it could sign on. "We cannot support the current bill," he said.
The Energy and Commerce Committee's Blue Dogs met Wednesday to consider what amendments they would offer, and the panel scheduled vote sessions daily through next Wednesday in what promised to be an arduous process to reach consensus.
Obama was doing all he could to encourage Congress to act. He scheduled White House meetings Thursday morning with two potential Senate swing votes, Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. On Wednesday, he met with a group of Senate Republicans in the White House in search of a bipartisan compromise and appeared in the Rose Garden for the latest in a daily series of public appeals to Congress to move legislation this summer.
Obama also pushed his message in network television interviews, and his political organization launched a series of 30-second television ads on health care.
The Senate health panel's $615 billion measure would require individuals to get health insurance and employers to contribute to the cost. The bill calls for the government to provide financial assistance with premiums for individuals and families making up to four times the federal poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four, a broad cross-section of the middle class.
But the 13-10 party-line vote on the bill signaled a rift in Congress -- including between Democrats. Some liberal-leaning Senate Democrats are eager to move forward with or without Republican support, while some moderates want to hold out for a bipartisan deal.
The bill would be paired with one from the Senate Finance Committee.
But a core group on Finance -- which, unlike the health committee, must come up with a payment mechanism for the bill -- continued to labor toward bipartisan agreement. Because it might be difficult to secure support from all Democrats, Baucus insisted after daylong meetings Wednesday that a bipartisan bill was needed.