This Week in Health Care Reform : EasyToInsureME Health Insurance

This Week in Health Reform

Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) in the January 19 special election to fill the seat of the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D) might prove to be a game-changer for the health care reform debate. The loss of the 60th Democratic vote now robs Senate Democrats of a filibuster-proof majority. Last week, Democrats were rushing to wrap up a House/Senate agreement on the bill, likely due to reports that Coakley’s lead had diminished.

Congressional leaders are still aiming to have the controversial points in the health care reform bill settled as soon as possible, so they can send the compromised bill to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for scoring. The CBO will then need 12 days to analyze the legislation.

In addition to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), lawmakers participating in the White House meetings include: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY), House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA), Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-IL), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-CT).

A main point of contention between the two houses of Congress pertained to the
40 percent excise tax on high-cost health insurance plans passed by the Senate. Since many labor union members would be affected by the tax on high-cost health insurance plans, the House of Representatives was not supportive of this provision in the Senate bill. Union leaders have also been included in key negotiations on this provision, and on January 14, signaled that they are ready to support the merged legislation with the compromised provision.

The main revenue source for the Senate’s health care reform bill (H.R. 3590) would be from an excise tax – beginning in 2013 – on employer-provided, high-cost health insurance plans costing more than ,500 for individuals and ,000 for a family. The reported compromise on the legislation now makes the tax kick-in on policies costing ,900 for individuals and ,000 for families. The tax threshold would still rise at inflation plus one percentage point, as is currently written in the Senate bill. Additionally, dental and vision benefits would be removed from the calculation of threshold costs, and plans offered by state and local governments, as well as plans covered by collective bargaining agreements, would be exempted from the excise tax until 2018. This would allow current agreements to expire and allow for negotiation of new contracts.

In an effort to make up the lack of revenue from the modification of the excise tax provision, leadership will have to come up with new funding to finance the merged bill. Some reports have mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry has agreed to provide more money than the billion they have already negotiated with the White House. Medical device companies could also face additional fees. Portions of the main revenue source in the House bill – a Medicare payroll tax on wealthy U.S. residents – could be added as well.

On January 14, Richard Trumpka, president of the AFL-CIO, said, “Union leaders approached negotiations with the White House and congressional leaders with one overriding goal in mind – getting a bill signed into law.” Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said, “We do like the way it’s shaping up, but it’s still not finished. We’ve got to see a final product.”

There also has been significant discussion – but no resolution so far – about the question of whether to establish a single national health insurance exchange or allow each state to operate its own exchange. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas continues to support a state-based approach to exchanges.

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