Health care reform clears major hurdle, as Klobuchar and Franken seek more changes

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Health care reform cleared a major hurdle today when a bill sailed through its last congressional committee, but Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken say they would like to see key changes in the legislation before it becomes law.

As expected, the $829 billion bill easily passed the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon on a 14-to-9 vote. Despite exhaustive talk of bipartisanship by panel Chairman Max Baucus, however, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the only Republican to support it.

“I think there are really good parts of the bill, and I think there are things that we are going to work on in the melding of the two [Senate bills],” said Franken, who sits on the Senate Health Committee, which passed its version of the bill this summer.

Klobuchar, who spoke with Snowe about the bill last weekend, agreed.

“First, I think it was very significant that Senator Snowe voted to move this bill to the floor …,” she told MinnPost. “[But] second, there is still work that needs to be done on this bill.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar said that the effects of Medicaid expansion on states like Minnesota, which has a lower qualification threshold than other states, have to be taken into consideration. In addition, she said the proposed tax on the medical device industry, which has a large business presence in Minnesota, also needs to be reduced.

Franken, meanwhile, said that he is still concerned about employer responsibility requirements in the Senate Finance bill that some experts have said will discourage the hiring of low- and moderate-income people. Franken said he also would like to see his proposed measures on the health insurance industry included.

One, which already exists in the House health care bills, would require that 90 percent of every premium dollar spent on health insurance go to actual health services, as opposed to administrative costs.

The other measure would end tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies’ advertising and marketing campaigns.

Although the Finance Committee’s version of the legislation does not include the controversial government-run public option, Franken, a consistent supporter of such a provision, said that he would like to see it added to the final bill.

But, today, the idea remained as controversial as ever.

Sen. Al Franken
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Sen. Al Franken

Snowe and even some Democrats on the Finance Committee still appear to oppose its inclusion. Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that the House would still pass a bill with the option.

“I am for the public option. That will be the House position, and that will be the position we will go to the conference to fight for,” Pelosi said today, according to CNN.

Franken and Klobuchar, however, suggested that there might be an intermediate position that could attract the necessary votes in the Senate.

“I think there are ways to get at it,” Franken said, mentioning the previously suggested “opt-out” plan for states that don’t want to participate.

The leaders of the Health, Finance and Banking committees now will sit down with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to resolve the differences between the bills.

Leaders in the House are also working to merge three bills on their side but have hinted that they would like the Senate to act first.

“This is an enormous step today,” Franken said. “I am very glad that Olympia signed on, and I am very optimistic that we are going to get meaningful health care reform that will bring down the cost curve so we won’t continue along this unsustainable path that will ruin us.”

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Howard Miller on 10/13/2009 - 11:52 pm.

    This is a sausage-making process for legislation that surely makes me ill. There is a set of things that have to be included in reform for it to have any effect on cost containment.

    Just throwing more customers to private insurers through varied mandates would be a disaster financially.

    Will health insurers and provider still be able to cream in any way? Will the customer side of the health cost negotiation be big enough, powerful enough to negotiate with national-scale health insurers? Pharmaceuticals?

    The problem is, each provision is a bargaining chip, and the political trade-off process may result in a mixed bag that could actually be worse than the status quo, which is neither particularly effective or affordable, and excludes all sort of people, either partly or in full.

    One hopes Senator Klobuchar shows as much concern for the patient side of things as she hasthus far for the quite legitimate concerns of the Minnesota medical device and health providers .

    It would be better if the good senator aggressively and openly supported a public insurance option – national scale, one plan that is open for enrollment regardless, sliding scale on premiums. That, along with anti-creaming and treatment-assurance provisions would go a long way to put downward price pressure in the health market – fewer nonmedical personnel would be needed when anybody can sign up (if they pay) and doctors are rarely second-guessed on treatment orders.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/14/2009 - 05:35 pm.

    On October 8, Senator Sherrod Brown wrote a letter to Leader Reid urging that any plan reaching the floor include a strong public option. It was signed by 30 or more senators.

    In the House, 70 or 80 members of the Progressive Caucus have said they will vote against any bill without a strong public option and that they will stand firmly behind their decision.

    Since the Senate Finance version of the bill seems to please the Blue Dogs, who do NOT want a public option (they sound much like Republicans), every real Democrat in the Congress should stand up and refuse to vote for a bill that does not include both a public option and for the right of any state to opt out and to create its own single payer plan.

    Or, for now, someone could write a simple bill that (1) makes all insurance company abuses of their customers illegal and subject to huge fines and prison terms, (2) removes from that industry the protection from anti-trust laws they now enjoy, and (3) opens Medicare to anyone under 65 and small business owners for themselves and their employees. (Number 3 is suggested by Thom Hartmann.)

    These three steps would be much closer to real reform than the complicated mish-mash of private and public bureaucracy that the insurance companies, the White House, and the Gang of Six from the Finance Committee came up with.

    Then, in a year or so, try again for the ideal solution (single payer) or at least the Swiss/Norwegian system of non-progit private insurers treated as public utilities whose prices, benefit sets, formularies and rules that forbid denial of coverage and/or payment are all set by the government.

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