Centrists pleased with health cost projection

An analysis issued Monday by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) demonstrated to centrists such as Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) that the healthcare legislation under debate would accomplish the goal of making insurance cheaper and more widely available.

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Although these senators emphasized the measure before them needed refining to fully answer the question of affordability, praise from some of the few lawmakers still up for grabs bodes well for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Though hot-button issues such as abortion and whether to create a government-run insurance program have dominated the political debate, affordability has been a frontline concern for lawmakers of all stripes.

Affordability is the “paramount” issue in healthcare reform, said Snowe, the lone Republican to support the Finance Committee’s version of the bill. The goal, she said, is to “absolutely be assured that affordability is going to be the single greatest outcome of this legislation. And that is important if you look at all the polling data … this is the foremost concern among Americans with respect to healthcare reform.”

The CBO-JCT report has sparked a partisan spin war, with Republicans blasting Reid’s bill for hiking premiums for some and Democrats pointing to the bill’s benefits to most people.

The report provided Reid and his Democratic allies with a mixed bag. The CBO and the JCT concluded people who get insurance benefits from their jobs would not see their premiums rise measurably and could even get some small relief.

For those individuals who would buy insurance on their own through the bill’s exchange, however, the effects would vary. More than half of these 31 million would get federal subsidies that would cut their insurance costs by more than half — and give them access to more generous insurance. But for the remaining 13 million individuals, the report said their insurance would cost up to 13 percent more, though they, too, would enjoy better coverage than typically available in the current market.

The centrists who stand to determine whether the bill can pass the Senate offered measured responses.

“I found it generally encouraging,” Lieberman said. “I think when you consider that fact that Sen. Reid’s proposal covers 30 million more people with insurance than are covered now, it’s quite an accomplishment to be able to do that without raising premiums.”

Though he was pleased with the news about the bill’s effect on premiums, Lieberman emphasized he still opposes the public option. “The public option is an unnatural and dangerous appendage to healthcare reform,” he said.

Snowe said the report shows the legislation “makes strides, without question” toward extending affordable coverage to more people. Nevertheless, she added, “We have to be sure that we are providing the most affordable plans to Americans, and that’s not abundantly clear at this point. That’s what’s of concern to me.”

Less expensive insurance options, such as health savings accounts and the basic “young invincible” plans in the bill, should be available to more people, Snowe said.

The report “raises serious questions and answers some questions,” especially the findings that the bill would not raise the cost of workplace health benefits, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “There’s serious concerns I have about what the assumptions are that led them to the conclusions that it’s going to be OK on group coverage,” he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the findings represent a “strong midterm report card for the legislation.” While not counted as a member of the centrists’ camp, Wyden has expressed skepticism throughout the healthcare debate that the bill would do enough to lower insurance costs, foster competition in the insurance industry or provide people with greater choice of plans.

“During the Clinton years, these reports from the budget office were a death sentence. Yesterday’s report on premiums shows that this legislation is very much alive, there’s a real foundation and that there’s an opportunity to build on it,” Wyden said.