Senate leader suggests fee on health insurers

White House still hoping for bipartisan plan

President Obama was embraced as he greeted union workers and their families at an AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati yesterday. President Obama was embraced as he greeted union workers and their families at an AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati yesterday. (Charles Dharapak/ Associated Press)
By Larry Margasak
Associated Press / September 8, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Senator Max Baucus yesterday pushed a new health care plan including an insurance industry fee to help pay for covering the uninsured, and President Obama said insurance companies must share accountability for the troubled system.

The Senate Finance Committee is considered the last, best hope for a bipartisan bill since four of five congressional committees have produced partisan proposals.

Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the committee, has said he would move forward on his own if there is no agreement by Sept. 15.

Obama is preparing for a prime-time speech to Congress tomorrow, in which he is expected to give specifics on major elements of the health care overhaul that he supports.

In a Labor Day speech in Cincinnati yesterday, Obama said a health insurance system should work as well for all Americans as it does for the insurance industry.

“They should be free to make a profit. But they also have to be fair. They also have to be accountable,’’ the president said. “That’s what we’re talking about - security and stability for folks who have health insurance, help for those who don’t, coverage they need at a price they can afford, finally bringing costs under control - that’s the reform that’s needed.’’

The president, dressed in shirt sleeves, spoke to about 20,000 people at an AFL-CIO picnic that was reminiscent of his campaign rallies.

He said special interests in the health system were determined to “scare the heck out of people.’’

“I’ve got a question for all these folks who say, you know, we’re going to pull the plug on Grandma and this is all about illegal immigrants - you’ve heard all the lies,’’ Obama said. “I’ve got a question for all those folks: What are you going to do? What’s your answer? What’s your solution?

“And you know what? They don’t have one.’’

Baucus is part of a six-member bipartisan group trying to craft a bill satisfactory to both parties. The group is set to meet today as Congress returns from its August recess.

The plan proposed by Baucus is designed to create competition in the insurance market. Insurers would be required to release the administrative costs included in premiums, as well as profits, so customers would know whether they were getting a fair deal at a good price.

It’s unclear whether the plan would win support of two key Republicans in the group: Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

The Baucus proposal reflects many of their priorities, chief among them the decision not to include a government-run plan to compete with private insurers.

Democratic sources close to the negotiations, who were not authorized to be quoted by name, disclosed the fee and other details of the Baucus proposal.

One source said the proposal included suggestions from all six members.

The fee is only a piece of a Baucus proposal that would establish a new way to purchase coverage for Americans who have trouble getting and keeping health insurance. Americans could keep their own doctors.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, accompanying Obama in Ohio yesterday, told reporters the administration would be pleased if the Finance Committee would “pull together the strands of many different pieces of legislation to improve health care for all Americans.’’

Under the Baucus plan, health insurance exchanges, with information on different plans and prices, would allow small groups and individuals to buy policies at lower rates.

Medicaid would be expanded to cover more low-income people. Nonprofit cooperatives would be established as an alternative to for-profit insurance companies, giving consumers more choices. Tax credits would allow low- and middle-income Americans to buy private coverage.

The package would cost under $900 billion over 10 years.

One Democratic source said the proposal was not final.

Finance Committee members were encouraged to suggest modifications, although Baucus advised senators that any proposals that would increase costs should include provisions to offset them.

If insurance companies passed the new fee along to customers, they would run the risk of losing out in a newly competitive environment, a source said.

Obama is getting no shortage of advice on what to say in his health care speech to Congress, and much of it conflicts.

Liberals want him to issue a call to action - clear and bold. Conservatives hope he’ll back away from his push for sweeping changes this year and break health care legislation into smaller pieces.

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