House liberals see new score as bolstering cause on healthcare

House liberals are saying that a new cost estimate has bolstered their case for the “robust” public health insurance option they support, even though it shows that a more conservative option is cheaper.

As part of an effort to nail down where members stand on the public option, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked the Congressional Budget Office for cost estimates on several variations on the public option.

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The cost estimate for two variations were obtained Friday by The Washington Post. The more liberal version reportedly cost $905 billion, while the option favored by centrists came in at $859 billion. That brings it within striking distance or below President Obama's price ceiling of $900 billion.

But House liberals say the cost estimates favor their plan, even though it's more expensive.

“The $905 billion plan is far superior,” said an aide to a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Individuals pay less, and it covers half a million more people.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), an ardent proponent of the more liberal version, said the cost estimate makes clear that a public option saves money.

“This makes clear what we already knew – A strong public option holds down costs by driving up competition and choice,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). “I hope my deficit hawk colleagues take notice.”

The public plan would compete with insurance companies, saving money by driving down rates.

The more liberal option of the government run plan would reimburse physicians at Medicare rates, plus 5 percent. Centrist, rural lawmakers don’t like the plan, because they say Medicare already shortchanges their physicians. They prefer requiring the public plan officials to negotiate individually with providers.

The $859 billion plan would employ that “negotiated rates” plan. It would also cover millions of people by enrolling them in Medicaid rather than a public plan or offering subsidies to buy private insurance.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the cost estimates are not final and will almost certainly change before they are publicly released, based on discussions with lawmakers.

“These numbers are outdated and are by no means final as we will send new policy specifications to CBO,” Elshami said. “But they do confirm, as the Speaker has said, that the coverage provisions of the House bill will be under $900 billion and we will have a public option.”

Pelosi has not sent to CBO the compromise worked out in July between House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and a group of Blue Dogs to get the bill out of committee. That plan would employ negotiated rates without the changes to Medicaid.

Pelosi, who strongly backs the “robust” Medicare plus 5 percent plan, has told members they need to say where they stand on the measure in coming days. The Democratic Whip team, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the speaker herself will be working on the effort to see what kind of plan would win the 218 votes needed to pass the bill in the House.

Progressive Caucus leaders, who conducted a whip count on the concept of Medicare plus 5, say about 200 members have affirmed they would support it.

Though the public option has become the dominant question among Democrats on health care, they have several other issues to resolve, starting with how many House Democrats will support Pelosi’s surtax on the wealthy to help pay for the bill. Democrats who oppose abortion also say the provisions preventing tax dollars from going to abortion aren't strong enough.