Senate Finance Chairman Calls for Mandatory Health Insurance

Tiffany Gabbay | November 12, 2008 | 8:50pm EST
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Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in a Senate elevator, Nov. 12, 2008 (AP Photo) – The Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee unveiled a health-care reform plan Wednesday that incorporates many of the provisions of President-elect Barack Obama’s plan, but goes one step further -- it would require everyone to eventually buy insurance coverage. 

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) proposes that medical insurance cover pre-existing conditions, as Obama’s plan does, and would set up an insurance exchange to help people and businesses find insurance if they need -- but don’t have -- coverage.

“Americans are acutely aware of problems in the country’s health care system and they are ready for change,” Baucus said at a Capitol Hill news conference announcing his “Call to Action: Health Care Reform 2009” proposal.

But the Baucus plan would require that everyone purchase health insurance, once “affordable options” are available.
“Our health-care system is broken” he said. “46 million are uninsured and 25 million are underinsured.” In addition, insurance premiums are "out of control.” 

Baucus is asking Americans to “suspend their judgment” and examine the provisions of his “white paper” on comprehensive health-care reform -- which details specific policy options to be considered by the 111th Congress -- before reaching conclusions. 

The key to providing “quality, accessible health care to all,” Baucus said, is to shore up the employer-based system by creating a “Health Insurance Exchange” to “allow health care consumers to find and obtain health coverage that best meet their needs.”

The exchange would connect individuals and employers to insurance offered at the local, state, regional or national level by insurers who meet the requiremenents of a new independent Health Coverage Council.
Health-care reform should be the “top priority” of the incoming administration, Baucus said, and he hopes legislation will be introduced and debated in the first half of the year.

"We’ve fixed Wall Street, we’ve fixed the housing market, fixed taxes -- everything else but health care -- and if we don’t fix that, we will have more economic troubles,” Baucus said. 

The long term benefits of health-care reform, he added, are that it “helps the economy” and will free-up funding for “education, infrastructure and energy independence.” 

Aiming to get “everyone under the tent,” Baucus’ white paper outlines three health care features he said must be “dealt with” -- access, quality and cost.
His goal is to have “every American insured, reduce health-care costs and premiums; and provide a higher quality of health care and preventative care.” In addition, the Baucus plan would not allow insurance companies to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions. 

If consumers are happy with their existing coverage, they can keep it, Baucus said, but he added: “The system can work better and cost less for everyone, if leaders are willing to work together for sound policy solutions.” 

Baucus also said that businesses “will be able to compete” and that there will be tax credits for small businesses to help them provide health insurance to their employees. 

Baucus would also provide coverage for those not currently covered by utilizing  existing federally funded health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) – a federally funded program designed to cover uninsured children in families with incomes that are modest but too high to qualify for Medicaid.  

Baucus also called for an increase in primary care physicians as well as implementing greater “reforms and regulations” on the insurance market.
When asked if President-elect Obama supports his proposal, Baucus deflected by saying that their respective plans are “more similar than they are different” and that he “would not expect (this bill) to be vetoed” if it passed the Senate and House.
Baucus, whose committee is charged with the financial aspects of health policy, will need to work with fellow liberal Democrat, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will play a key role in any legislation that is crafted. Kennedy, who was diagnosed with a  brain tumor has “dedicated the remainder of his life” to passing health-care reform, offered “complimentary words” about his proposal, Baucus said. 

Baucus, meanwhile, said his health-care reform proposal differs from the Clinton administration’s health care initiative in 1993 and 1994, which promised “universal health care” for all Americans. 

The Clinton initiative was too “top dense” – or government-run, Baucus said, whereas his plan will combine “both public and private sector” elements. In addition, Baucus explained that it is the job of Congress to “get the ball rolling” on health-care reform. 

Baucus offered few specifics about what the plan would cost to implement – nor did he say how it would be paid for, beyond noting that it would require an “initial investment” and would “cost for the first five years” but that in 10 years time, he predicted, "we would see savings." 

He added: “There is an investment here, and we have to figure out how to pay for it and offset (the cost)” but “as soon as we get legislation, we’ll have more precise figures.” 

"Inaction is much more expensive,” Baucus said.
Baucus also said that he wants to work with Republicans on the issue – and  believes that the plan’s mixture of public and private provisions will help get GOP senators on board.
“Republicans and Democrats both know what we need to do” he said.
Baucus, meanwhile, said that he would like any health-care reform plan pass with “80 votes, not just 60” and that “nothing is off the table” in terms of negotiating and reaching a compromise acceptable to both sides of the aisle.  
“The plan is not yet perfect, but we’ll keep working on it,” Baucus said.  
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