Baucus Downplays $1.5T CBO Score For Plan

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
by Anna Edney, with Dan Friedman and Billy House contributing
CBO has stamped a recent version of the Senate Finance Committee's healthcare overhaul proposal with a $1.5 trillion price tag over 10 years, according to several sources. That could cause the committee's timeline to slip on releasing and even marking up the legislation.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus confirmed the CBO numbers, released late Monday, but cautioned they were for a two-week-old bill that has evolved. Baucus also said he did not want to be held to a Wednesday release of a draft of his panel's measure as he previously indicated.
Baucus said the committee still plans a markup next week and that scores for an updated bill will be ready by then. An incomplete CBO estimate of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Democrats' overhaul released Monday totaled $1 trillion.
The high cost could boost an insurance co-op proposal offered by Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad as an alternative to a public insurance option.
Conrad's plan would not score a cost with CBO, according to a Democratic source. Federal spending associated with the co-op proposal would come in the form of start-up funding that would not fall under mandatory, long-term spending. The intention is for the seed money to be considered a one-time discretionary expenditure.
Meanwhile, three Senate Democrats are asking Senate Finance Committee leaders to take a crack at closing the Medicare prescription drug benefit "doughnut hole" that forces seniors to pay out-of-pocket for some prescriptions.
Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Bill Nelson of Florida wrote Baucus and Finance ranking member Charles Grassley today asking them to consider decreasing the amount considered the catastrophic limit by linking it to the Consumer Price Index, freezing it at its current level or gradually reducing it by a certain percentage each year. The senators say any of those options will eventually close the doughnut hole.
On the House side, Republicans on the healthcare task force led by Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri are set to unveil an outline to shape their alternative Wednesday.
The outline will call for reining in medical liability lawsuits, raising the profile of health savings accounts, providing financial assistance for low- to moderate-income families to purchase health coverage, allowing dependents to remain on their parents' health plans until they turn 25 and extending tax benefits to those without employer-based insurance.
"It's pretty clear that we're going to take the current system and have it work much better to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable high-quality health care," said House Minority Leader Boehner.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., a member of the working group, said the public will see that the Republican plan has "more access, more availability, more affordability, more choices, more control."
Some Republican proposals resemble ideas under consideration by Democrats, particularly Conrad's co-op proposal and the establishment of state exchanges where people can compare and purchase insurance in a standardized format.
The House Republican outline calls for allowing states and small businesses to pool their resources to increase their purchasing power and creating "plan-finders" to help people purchase insurance.