Chamber rips Senate healthcare bill

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce formally warned lawmakers Tuesday that it intends to oppose an early version of healthcare reform legislation unless wholesale changes are made.

A rejection by the powerful and influential big-business group may not come as a surprise, but opposition by the Chamber would signal an intensification of the political and lobbying battle over healthcare reform. Were the Chamber to tag the bill as a “key vote,” lawmakers who support it would also risk being branded as anti-business.

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The Chamber already strongly indicated that it disagrees with key provisions of draft legislation introduced last week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and was not shy about employing strong words in condemning the bill.

But the business group made a significant symbolic maneuver Tuesday by penning a letter detailing its criticisms to HELP Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

“In the bill’s current configuration, the Chamber will oppose the ‘Affordable Health Choices Act' unless several key provisions are significantly changed,” says the letter, signed by Chamber Executive Vice President of Government Affairs Bruce Josten.

The HELP Committee is scheduled to begin marking up the bill Wednesday, a process that could take more than a week, according to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is overseeing the committee in the absence of the ailing Kennedy.

“As the committee begins consideration of this comprehensive legislation, the Chamber is gravely concerned about the process. The markup is expected to begin tomorrow morning, yet a final version of critical policy language has yet to be publicly released,” Josten wrote.

In order to comply with the Chamber’s demands, Dodd and his fellow HELP Committee Democrats would essentially have to tear down their bill and start from scratch.

For example, the Chamber expresses intense opposition to provisions that would require employers to provide benefits or else be forced to contribute to a government kitty for healthcare, a policy known as “play or pay.” Though the HELP Committee draft left out the mandate and “play or pay,” Democrats favor that approach.

“This would be harmful to businesses of all sizes, to the economy and to American workers,” the Chamber letter says.

The Chamber also rejects the Democratic idea of creating a public health insurance plan that would compete with private insurance. President Obama insists that the healthcare reform bill include some form of private plan, but the issue provokes protests from Republicans and business interests.

“Creating a new government-run insurance plan, whether based on Medicare, run by an appointed panel, backed by entitlement funding, or created in some other way, would lead to serious adverse consequences for employer-sponsored health insurance, and must not be included in legislation,” Josten wrote.

The Chamber letter runs through a litany of other complaints that cover huge swaths of the HELP Committee’s draft bill. For example, the group expresses opposition to creating a “Medical Advisory Council” to establish rules for health insurance benefits; expanding Medicaid; providing subsidies for middle-income families to buy insurance; and requiring insurance plans to cover dependent children up to age 26.