Universal Health Care Bill To Be Introduced

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Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on Monday returned to the Senate for the first time since July and reaffirmed his intentions to introduce universal health care legislation next year, the New York Times' "The Caucus" reports. Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer in May (Hulse/Stout, "The Caucus," New York Times, 11/18). According to the Washington Post, his "brief appearance" at the Senate "represented an opportunity for him to show colleagues that he remains energetic and engaged, and that he intends to reclaim his committee post in January and take charge of the Obama health care agenda." Kennedy directed staffers months ago to begin work on a health care bill that would significantly expand coverage (Murray, Washington Post, 11/18).

Kennedy in a statement said that he will "continue to lay the ground work for early action by Congress on health reform when President (Barack) Obama takes office in January," adding, "We've been making real progress in our discussions about a consensus approach and I'm optimistic we'll succeed" (Cowan, Reuters/Boston Globe, 11/18). He said, "There's some major issues, obviously, the economy and also environmental issues," but "the president-elect has indicated that this is going to be a priority, and I certainly hope it will" (Washington Post, 11/18). Kennedy also indicated that he believed Obama would sign a health care bill early in his presidency (Milligan, Boston Globe, 11/18).

Baucus

In related news, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on Monday said he hopes to ensure that the health care overhaul plan he released last week would be paid for over a 10-year period, but he "left open the possibility" that it would violate pay-as-you-go budget rules for the first five years, CQ Today reports. Baucus, who spoke at a briefing hosted by the Brookings Institution, said, "There are going to be some upfront costs, but they'll be investments," adding, "Over 10 years, some of the bulk of the upfront investments will be offset by cost reductions. But that's over a 10-year period." Democrats adopted pay-go rules in 2006, requiring that all new spending be offset with decreases elsewhere or with tax increases.

HELP Committee Chief of Staff J. Michael Myers said it "isn't settled yet" whether an overhaul bill would comply with pay-go rules. Len Nichols, health policy director for the New America Foundation, said such legislation should not have to be completely in compliance with pay-go rules as long as it eventually reduces overall health care costs. Nichols said, "Health reform -- getting that system to be sustainable and work for all of us in the long run -- that is an investment worth making," adding, "Paying for it over a long period of time is a reasonable thing to do."

CQ Today reports that many Republicans and Democratic members of the Blue Dog Coalition have insisted that any new spending under major legislation be offset, "but the 110th Congress has frequently bypassed those rules for legislation deemed critical, most recently a $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry." Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) last week said, "Paying for health care reform needs to be done in an intellectually honest way for the fiscal health of our country" (Wayne [1], CQ Today, 11/17).

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Finance, HELP Committees

Kennedy, Baucus, Grassley and HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) will meet on Tuesday to discuss how to move forward with legislation that would overhaul the U.S. health care system, CongressDaily reports. Baucus at Monday's briefing said, "Obviously, moving this legislation will require collaboration" (Edney, CongressDaily, 11/17). Aides for Kennedy said he will take cues from Obama, who is expected to send his plan to Congress early next year. Baucus believes the legislation should come from Congress, noting that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told him that her attempt to overhaul the health care system in the 1990s failed in part because it was "a little top-down."

Baucus said he invited Grassley and Enzi to the talks because he hopes the overhaul will have bipartisan support, adding, "We may have to get partisan," but "I very much hope not." The Finance Committee also will hold a meeting Wednesday on the issue. In addition, Baucus said he is preparing to submit language for his universal health care plan to the Congressional Budget Office for evaluation (Wayne [2], CQ Today, 11/17).

Economic Climate

The "bleak" economic environment and a "ballooning budget deficit" may "paradoxically spur the kind of costly, sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system that has eluded policymakers in Washington for decades," according to experts from various sectors, the Los Angeles Times reports. Hospitals and doctors have expressed concerns about the potential burden placed on them as newly unemployed workers lose health insurance and seek care they cannot afford. Liberal advocacy groups point to the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street firms as supporting the case for large-scale investment to help pay for care for low-income individuals, according to the Times. In addition, businesses "see new urgency in addressing the nation's health care crisis," as they must continue to pay for employees' medical benefits despite decreasing sales and shrinking profit margins, the Times reports.

Todd Stottlemyer, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, said, "Health care reform is very much linked to the broader economic issues that the country is facing," adding, "Our view is that there is energy now to make this a top priority." A report released Monday by the NAF estimated that deaths and illnesses among the uninsured resulted in economic costs to the country of between $103.9 billion and $207.3 billion last year (Levey/Girion, Los Angeles Times, 11/18).

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers on Monday said, "I have a feeling that if you look at what's happened with prescription drugs, with children's health insurance, with bipartisan support, that the notion of making health care less of a public responsibility doesn't feel like a direction that our country is likely to go in" (Lawder, Reuters/Boston Globe, 11/17). Kenneth Thorpe, executive director of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease and former deputy assistant HHS secretary under President Clinton, said, "At this point, ... there are a number of things not typically on the table that are now on the table for discussion," adding, "Everybody recognizes that money is at a premium" (Nylen, CQ HealthBeat, 11/17).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, search the archives, and sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email . The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. © 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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