Democrats Inch Forward with Public Option
WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats gained ground Monday in addressing one of the most controversial provisions in the health care legislation - a government-run insurance plan - as they prepared to vote today on the divisive issue of abortion.
After weeks of deadlock on the so-called public option, senators working on a compromise indicated that momentum is building for a series of alternative proposals that would include letting people under 65 buy into Medicare, the government health program for seniors.
Details of that proposal, including who would be allowed in and how much it would cost enrollees, are unclear, but talk of the Medicare "buy-in" approach gathered support from Democrats who have been otherwise split over the idea of a government-run insurance plan intended to compete with private insurers.
"People like Medicare. They'd like to see it more available," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., an advocate of a government-run program who is among a group of 10 centrist and liberal members meeting privately on the issue at the request of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Schumer said the group is also considering raising the income threshold to allow more people into Medicaid. The bill currently would raise the threshold to $29,327 for a family of four.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a centrist opposed to government insurance who is also involved in the talks, wants more detail on the Medicare idea but said "discussions are going in the right direction."
Senators are racing to complete a 10-year, $848 billion health care bill by Christmas.
The current bill calls for a government insurance program that would be offered alongside private insurance plans for people who don't receive coverage through work. States could decide not to offer the plan, which the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts would enroll as many as 4 million people.
Supporters, including President Obama, say the program would drive down costs by competing with private insurers. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and others counter that it could force people to give up their private coverage over time.
Even as lawmakers reported progress on the public option, they began debating the issue of abortion. An amendment, offered Monday by Nelson, would prohibit insurers from covering an abortion for anyone who receives federal subsidies to help pay for premiums.
The amendment mirrors restrictions included in the bill approved by the House last month but is more restrictive than what is in the Senate bill now. Currently, the Senate measure would require insurance companies to segregate public and private money and use only the latter to pay for the procedure.
Nelson said it will be "very difficult" for him to support the broader health care bill unless the stricter abortion language is included. Several Democrats said they would oppose it. "I believe we should be debating health care, not abortions," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said in a statement.
Reid will need 60 senators to support the bill in order to prevent Republicans from blocking a final vote.
A host of thorny issues will confront lawmakers immediately after the vote on abortion. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he will offer an amendment this week to permit the importation of low-priced prescription drugs from other countries, an idea vehemently opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.