Baucus: 'Time has come for action'



The Senate Finance Committee will move ahead with healthcare legislation during the week of Sept. 21 — with or without Republican support, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Wednesday.

Baucus met with Democratic members of his panel Wednesday morning to gauge their support for a proposal he originally floated to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” negotiating group Sunday and to assure Democrats that he plans to move a bill through his committee soon.

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“The time has come for action, and we will act,” Baucus told reporters.

“This is our moment. We have spent many weeks and months on this and now is the time to move forward,” Baucus said, emphasizing that the schedule he outlined is “firm.”

Baucus has been attempting to forge a bipartisan deal with committee ranking Republican Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Baucus will put forward a formal legislative proposal next week. The other four healthcare committees in Congress completed their work on healthcare reform legislation before Congress left for its August recess, but Baucus pressed on with his bipartisan negotiations — much to the chagrin of fellow Democrats.

Baucus faces skepticism from his own ranks. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has been critical of the bipartisan negotiations all along, emerged from Wednesday’s meeting with harsh words for Baucus's proposals.

“We don’t have something which I consider acceptable,” Rockefeller said. “As of this moment, the proposal is inadequate.”

Chief among congressional liberals’ complaints is that Baucus declined to include a proposal to create a government-run “public option” that would compete with private insurance.

Baucus indicated that his bill would not include a public option even if he fails to strike a deal with committee Republicans. “A public option cannot pass the Senate,” Baucus said, citing public and private statements from centrist Democrats and Republicans opposing the proposal.

Rockefeller rejected a compromise proposal, put forth by Conrad and embraced by Baucus, to establish federally chartered, not-for-profit, member-owned healthcare cooperatives to compete with private insurers.

Nevertheless, Baucus predicted that committee Democrats would support his bill. “I think they will, because they know the importance of healthcare reform,” he said. Baucus also indicated that he expects Democrats to amend the bill during markup.

Snowe has suggested establishing a “trigger” for the public option, under which the program would only kick in if private insurers fail to cover the uninsured under reform. Baucus said that proposal has never come up during either the bipartisan talks or his meetings with committee Democrats.

After meeting with the Gang of Six on Tuesday, Baucus asked the senators to submit requests for changes to his proposal by Wednesday morning. All three Republicans complied with that request, he said, setting up an afternoon meeting that would take place just hours before President Barack Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on healthcare reform.

Baucus said he informed Grassley on Wednesday morning of his plans to move toward a committee markup with or without GOP support. “He understands,” Baucus said.

As initially proposed, Baucus’s bill outlines sweeping health insurance market reforms designed to make coverage more available, sets up state-based exchanges through which individuals and small-business employees could purchase insurance, provides tax credits for low- and middle-income individuals and those employed by small businesses, expands Medicaid eligibility and would require most individuals to obtain some form of coverage. Medicare beneficiaries would receive a 50 percent discount on their medications during the so-called coverage gap in the program's prescription-drug benefit.

The bill would require new federal spending of about $900 billion over 10 years, a few hundred billion dollars less than the other measures, partly because of less generous subsidies for insurance.

Baucus would fully pay for his measure, in part by levying an excise tax on health insurance companies when they sell high-cost insurance plans. Not-for-profit hospitals, drug companies, medical device manufacturers, health insurers and clinical laboratories would be assessed new fees.

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