Sen. Conrad worries Democrats by calling to revisit the healthcare debate

Unshackled by the need to get reelected, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) suggested Thursday that Democrats reopen the bitter healthcare debate, arguing that the reform law’s provisions could yield opportunities to cut the federal deficit.

But several Democratic colleagues rejected the idea — it did them enough damage in the last election cycle — over worries that those facing re-election in 2012 could be faced with a storm of negative political ads.

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“All you do is give your opponents a chance to misinform again,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is expected to face a tough campaign. “I just saw $8.5 million in misinformation on healthcare reform in Nebraska right around the time of the vote. I’m sensitive that people will be out there intentionally misinforming.”

Nelson said if Democratic leaders think they can handle entitlement reform along with proposed cuts in discretionary spending “and not lose the message, I’ll take a look at it.”

Some are inclined to wait for the reform law, which passed last year, to be implemented. They contend it could produce tens of billions of dollars in savings that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) failed to predict.

The law slows the projected growth in Medicare spending by about $500 billion over 10 years.

But Conrad, who also unnerved some Democratic colleagues this week by criticizing the president’s budget for failing to tackle entitlement spending, thinks there are more savings to be found in health-related entitlement programs.

“The healthcare accounts, we’re spending one of every six dollars in this economy on healthcare. We’re heading to one of every three,” Conrad said. “There have to be further reform and savings in the healthcare accounts.”

Conrad said he “personally” liked the idea of empowering the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate prescription drug prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries.

Finding savings in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, however, could run afoul of a deal President Obama cut with the drug industry in 2009. The administration pledged not to support collective bargaining on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries in exchange for $80 billion worth of discounts from the drug industry for seniors.

Other Democrats are leery about reopening a contentious debate over healthcare reform, Medicare and Medicaid.

“One of the things that hopefully is going to be done is, as the implementation of the healthcare reform bill rolls out, that you will discover savings that we could not claim because of CBO scoring rules,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“There’s a lot of discussion about savings that result from medical homes, electronic records, all those things being adopted right now,” he said.

It’s difficult to find savings in Medicare and Medicaid and other health programs without touching the healthcare reforms Congress passed last year.

Rick Foster, the Medicare and Medicaid actuary, told The Hill there is uncertainty over how healthcare reform will play out because “it changes almost everything in the health sector.”

“As the provisions are implemented, people will undoubtedly be surprised from time to time because it won’t work exactly as we and others have been thinking,” he said.

Conrad noted the debate raging across Capitol Hill this week is over discretionary spending, which accounts for only 12 percent of the federal budget.

“If you look at the spending in the federal government, 60 percent of it is entitlements,” Conrad said.