Baucus aims for center, but some call plan off-target

WASHINGTON — A proposal to change the nation's $2.6 trillion health care system that was unveiled Wednesday has no Republican support, but interest groups on both sides of the debate said that doesn't mean it isn't full of Republican ideas.

From ditching a proposed government-run insurance program to driving down the overall cost of the bill, the proposal unveiled by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is significantly different than other health care bills in Congress — the result of a more bipartisan process, the groups said.

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"Sen. Baucus is trying to put together a centrist piece of legislation that can appeal to moderate Blue Dog Democrats and attract a few Republicans," said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "They are fighting over the details."

Three Republicans who took part in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Baucus said they believed the bipartisan talks made some progress, but they said there are outstanding issues that require more time to resolve. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he is still willing to work with Democrats.

"Whenever Baucus calls us," he said, "I'll be there."

Among the key differences from other versions:

• The proposal, which Baucus says will cost $856 billion in the first 10 years, has a lower price tag than the other bills. The Congressional Budget Office puts the Baucus bill at $774 billion in its preliminary analysis.

• The Senate Finance bill does not include a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurance companies, one of the most controversial sticking points between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, the measure calls for $6 billion in seed money that would be used to create membership-run cooperatives.

• The Senate Finance bill includes a 35% excise tax on high-priced health insurance plans, a major change from a House version of the bill that would pay for changes by imposing an income tax on high-earning individuals and families.

"Sen. Baucus has had the patience of Job in trying to work with his Republican colleagues," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, which has lobbied in support of changing the current system. "He has every reason to be disappointed that despite his inclusion of their proposals, they have left him standing at the altar."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the bill is still too costly and would give the government too much power over health decisions. Echoing concerns raised by several Republicans, McConnell said the bill "puts massive new tax burdens on families and small businesses."

"The proposal released today still spends too much, and it does too little to cut health care costs for those with health insurance," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., a participant in the negotiations, said in a statement.

The Senate Finance bill would be paid for with about $500 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and roughly $350 billion in new taxes and fees.

Despite the effort at bipartisanship, the bill drew criticism from across the political spectrum. Karen Ignagni, CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said co-ops could "disrupt the quality coverage on which millions of Americans rely today."

On the other side of the debate, Richard Kirsch of Health Care For America Now said that without a public option, there is nothing to drive down costs in the long run. "There's almost nothing we like," he said.


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