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Nine More Dems Urge Wyden ‘Free Choice’ Proposal

Few lawmakers on planet earth have pushed more persistently for health care reform in the past decade than Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). And although Wyden’s own enormous blueprint for a health system overhaul was largely ignored through this year’s debate, the Oregon Democrat has had a great deal of luck tweaking the Senate bill to his liking.

He isn’t done yet.

In a Friday letter, Wyden urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to incorporate into the Democrats’ health bill a controversial proposal allowing workers to leave their employer-sponsored health plans in favor of other options on newly proposed insurance exchanges. And he’s recruited help. Nine other Senate Democrats also signed the letter.

The idea is this: health reform should allow people to keep the coverage they have if they like it, but it should also allow them to leave it if they don’t.

“We support President Obama’s assertion that under health reform, people should be able to keep the coverage they have,” the lawmakers wrote.

Earlier this year President Obama rightly took that statement to its next logical step when he told the American Medical Association that “If you don’t like your health coverage or don’t have any insurance, you will have a chance to take part in what we’re calling a Health Insurance Exchange.” We couldn’t agree more that people who do not like the coverage they currently have should be able to choose something better.

Moreover, by opening the exchanges to more consumers, we will enhance competition, generate greater risk pooling, and hold down health care costs for millions of Americans, some estimate by as much as $360 billion over ten years.

The nine lawmakers joining Wyden were Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Roland Burris (D-Ill.).

The proposal is hardly a slam dunk. Indeed, many lawmakers fear that the so-called “free-choice” provision would lead to an exodus of employer-sponsored plans among young, healthy workers who might find something cheaper on exchanges. (As an additional incentive to flee, Wyden’s proposal would offer workers cash vouchers in the amount of the employer-paid premium. Workers who could find cheaper coverage could pocket the difference.) Such an exodus would leave only older, sicker workers on the employer-sponsored plan, critics argue, leading necessarily to a hike in premiums for those folks.

Both sides have valid arguments, leaving Reid with no easy choice.

Wyden offered his amendment once during the Senate Finance Committee’s markup of health reform legislation. Even if Reid ignores this request, you can expect to see it again during the coming floor debate.

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