AP Interview: Snowe seeks bipartisan health bill

By Jerry Harkavy
Associated Press Writer / June 29, 2009
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PORTLAND, Maine—Sen. Olympia Snowe, a key figure in shaping federal health care legislation, said Monday that a government-run plan that would take effect if the private insurance market fails to deliver affordable coverage could bridge the partisan divide that threatens to derail President Barack Obama's efforts to reform the system.

Snowe, R-Maine, said she's working with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to establish that kind of a framework in the bill expected to emerge next month from the Senate Finance Committee.

In an Associated Press interview in Portland, Snowe said it would be unfair to include a government-run health insurance option that would take effect immediately.

"If you establish a public option at the forefront that goes head-to-head and competes with the private health insurance market ... the public option will have significant price advantages," she said.

Responding to Snowe's comments, Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon said the Democrat will continue to seek a consensus with Republicans but believes there must be a public option that "is available to all Americans from the first day."

Snowe is seen as a key swing vote on health care. She was the committee's only Republican who declined to go on record as opposing the public option.

Snowe said having a government option as a backup would be an approach "that bridges both sides" and gives private insurers a fair chance to meet the requirements of the new law.

"I don't think we can entirely depend on the private insurance market to deliver. They haven't delivered thus far, and that's why we're in the predicament we're in today," she said.

Snowe said it's important to preserve what's good about the health care system and take care not to undermine employer-based insurance as Congress moves to extend comprehensive coverage to the nation's 47 million uninsured and the 30 million underinsured.

Characterizing health care reform as the most challenging and complex issue she has ever confronted, Snowe said she believes the Senate Finance Committee can produce a bipartisan bill in which everyone has confidence, but "everybody has to give a little."

"It is important to get it to be a bipartisan initiative, given the dimensions of health care reform and the implications to all Americans," she said. "Every American will be affected one way or the other under this."

Snowe acknowledged that the majority Democrats can push through a health care bill on their own, but said a measure of such magnitude should have the broadest possible support.

Democrats have set Oct. 15 as the deadline for moving a bill forward under a process that would avoid a possible filibuster. That's why there's a sense of urgency to reach a compromise, Snowe said.

Snowe said cost concerns are a major issue, and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has been trying to get the estimated 10-year price tag for health care reform below $1 trillion.

She said she hasn't yet decided whether to support elimination of the tax-exemption on employer-paid health insurance benefits but maintained that any such provision should take into account the variations in health care costs among the states.