The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Courting Olympia Snowe

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | September 22, 2009 | Tobey Strickland

After months of sometimes rancorous partisan debate, the Senate Finance Committee began its debate this morning on legislation to overhaul the nation’s dysfunctional health care system. It won’t be a quick process. Members of the panel are still slogging through their opening statements, which have been predictably dominated by the ideologically driven arguments that marked the earlier stages of the debate. (In the understatement of the day, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) pointed out moments ago, “We have some fundamental differences in philosophy.”)

At this pace, observers predict that the panel won’t get to any of those 564 amendments before tomorrow.

Meanwhile, however, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has just made news, announcing more details about his decision to incorporate some of the amendments addressing the affordability of health coverage, which most Americans would be required to purchase under the bill. And after months spent trying (unsuccessfully) to woo Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the committee’s senior Republican, it seems as if Baucus is now targeting the more moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the only Republican to show any interest at all in Baucus’s proposal. Indeed, six amendments offered by Snowe have now been included in the underlying bill. (Grassley got none.)

Among them are proposals to:

– Allow those otherwise exempt from the individual mandate to buy catastrophic plans — dubbed “young invincibles” policies — on the Exchange.

– Make it easier for those who can’t afford employer-sponsored coverage to get tax credits by including those employees charged premiums greater than 10 percent of their income.

– Require small employers to offer plans with deductibles no greater than $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families, “unless offering contributions which offset any increase in deductible above these limits.”

– Launch a three-year, $75 million demonstration project to treat some Medicaid patients in private psychiatric hospitals.

The new Baucus mark also takes significant steps to court Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Finance Committee’s health subpanel, by allowing more high-cost insurance plans to go untaxed. Rockefeller, who’d threatened to vote against the bill in its original form, has said the initial plan to tax so-called “Cadillac plans” — $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families — would just cause insurance companies to pass the costs on to those benefiting from the coverage, including those in high-risk jobs like coal mining. The new bill hikes the tax threshold for those working high-risk jobs and non-Medicare retirees aged 55 and older. The new thresholds are $8,750 for individuals and $23,000 for families.

No word on whether that’s enough to get Rockefeller on board, or if the continued absence of a public insurance option will keep the West Virginia Democrat opposed.

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