Sen. Wyden wins big healthcare concession

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have taken a long stride toward locking down the support of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The three senators announced an agreement Friday on an amendment that would allow many more people who get health insurance at work to opt out and instead purchase coverage on the new health insurance exchanges the bill would create.

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More important to the debate on the healthcare reform bill that would kick after Thanksgiving -- presuming Senate Democrats unite to clear a procedural vote Saturday evening -- is that the deal could quiet Wyden's frequent complaints that the bill as introduced would do too little to offer consumers more health insurance plans from which to choose or to create a more competitive insurance marketplace that would drive down healthcare costs.

“As I have long said, empowering Americans to choose the health insurance that works best for them and their family is the single best way to hold health insurance companies accountable,” Wyden  said in a statement.  “While this is just one step in the direction of guaranteeing choices for all Americans, it is a major step because – for the first time – it introduces the concept of individual choice to a marketplace where it has long been foreign. This is a significant step toward real reform.”

Throughout this year's healthcare debate, Wyden has remained a steadfast and very vocal proponent of his own reform legislation. One of the signature aims of Wyden's bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), is to transition people away from employer-sponsored insurance and into a competitive marketplace that offers them more choices of health plan than most people get at work.

With Reid needing all 60 members of his caucus unified as the healthcare reform debate moves forward, answering Wyden's criticisms is a crucial step. “Sen. Wyden has worked tirelessly to reform our health system, and I am pleased to have his support," Reid said.

The Wyden-Reid-Baucus amendment does not go that far, but it would open up the health insurance exchanges to considerably more people than the bill as currently written. Under Reid's version of the Senate bill and under the House-passed bill, the vast majority of people who receive health benefits from their jobs would be ineligible to shop for insurance on the exchanges, which instead would primarily be accessed by individuals and workers at small businesses.

The agreement between Wyden, Reid and Baucus would change that."The agreed to amendment will make it possible for these individuals to convert their tax-free employer health subsidies into vouchers that they can use to choose a health insurance plan in the new health insurance exchanges. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a previous version of this provision will expand coverage to more than a million Americans," according to a statement from Wyden's office.

Wyden tried to bring a similar amendment to a vote during the Finance Committee's consideration of an earlier version of the healthcare reform but Baucus blocked him. The deal unveiled Friday brings to fruition Baucus's promise to work out a solution with Wyden.

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