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The End of the Beginning

After seven long days of partisan haggling, the Senate Finance Committee early Friday morning wrapped up its debate on the panel’s sweeping health reform legislation, including a last-minute deal to ease the penalties on those who fail to comply with the requirement that nearly everyone buy health insurance.

Coming into the day’s debate, the bill would have penalized families as much as $1,900 for going uninsured — a provision that drew sharp criticism from Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican being courted by Democrats as a possible supporter of the final bill.

“I just don’t understand,” Snowe said, “why there’s this impetus to punish people.”

Snowe struck a deal with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to delay all penalties for one year, then phase them in over a five-year span — two years longer than Schumer’s original proposal. Heeding a criticism of Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), the Schumer/Snowe compromise also eliminated the possibility that folks might be slapped with criminal charges for failing to get coverage.

The proposal would also waive the individual mandate in cases when the cheapest available plan costs more than 8 percent of an individual’s income — a softening of the original Baucus bill, which set the threshold at 10 percent. Those exempt from the individual mandate would qualify for catastrophic coverage known as “young invincibles” plans.

The Schumer/Snowe amendment passed 22 to 1, with only Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) voting against the measure.

In another last-minute move, the panel hiked the thresholds at which certain high-cost insurance plans would be hit with an excise tax. The initial bill would have taxed companies for all individual plans above $8,750 and all family plans above $23,000 — a tax that critics feared would simply be passed on to workers, particularly those in high-risk jobs who tend to have more expensive plans. The amended bill hikes those levels to $9,850 and $26,000, respectively, though the increases would apply only to those working high-risk jobs and non-Medicare retirees aged 55 and up.

The amended bill — still written in the plain-English, conceptual language that’s been so controversial throughout the debate — now moves to the Congressional Budget Office, which is expected to produce a cost estimate by early next week. Only after a CBO score is reported will the Finance Committee vote on the measure, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has assured members.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already warned that the week-long Columbus Day recess will likely be scrapped to leave more time for floor action on the legislation.

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