Sen. Wyden Still Hoping For Bipartisan Health Bill

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Sen. Ron Wyden's name has been identified with health care on Capitol Hill for more than two years, but a health care plan the Democrat from Oregon co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah has been cast aside. Wyden tells Guy Raz he thinks Congress should still pursue a bipartisan solution to the health care overhaul.

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

President Obama's health care blitz continues tomorrow morning when he'll appear on five Sunday talk shows. This past week, opponents and supporters of his position weighed in, including the first lady, Michelle Obama.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Change is hard. Sometimes the status quo, even if it isn't right, feels comfortable because it's what we know.

RAZ: But Republicans argue that the plan currently circulating in the Senate, known informally as the Baucus Plan, that's after Montana's Democrat Max Baucus, that plan, they say, would take money away from Medicare.

Here's North Carolina Congresswoman Sue Myrick in the GOP's weekly address today.

Representative SUE MYRICK (Republican, North Carolina): Doing this now without implementing significant reforms to make the program more efficient would leave seniors susceptible to the rationing of care.

RAZ: Members of the Senate have now offered up more than 500 amendments to the plan proposed by Senator Baucus. One Senator, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, hopes to require employers to offer at least two insurance options to their employees. Wyden does not back a government-run public option. He also wants everyone in America to have access to a so-called exchange. It's a system where private insurers would compete for your business.

It's an idea that's included in the Baucus Plan, but only for a limited number of people. Wyden says extending that option to everyone will bring down costs. And Ron Wyden has introduced his own bill in the Senate. It's co-sponsored with Utah Republican Robert Bennett, and that bill relies on market forces to solve the problem of providing coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans. I spoke with Ron Wyden on Friday.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): My legislation builds in a key way on what the president has said for many months. The president told the American people, you can keep the coverage you have. I put a comma in and say, if you don't like the coverage you have, you can go into the marketplace and get other alternatives. What I do is really go to what the president has said is his guiding principle that there ought to be choice and competition.

RAZ: So just in practical terms, explain how this would work for a consumer.

Senator WYDEN: You can take the money that you're employer offers you in terms of health care and you can say, all right, I'm going to stay with my employer plan. I like what I've got - in effect, you check a box, you stay with your employer plan. But if you don't like that particular package, you can take that amount of money, go to the marketplace, if you find something else you like that's cheaper, the money goes into your pocket.

RAZ: One of the key things that you have omitted from your plan is a public option, a government-sponsored health care plan. You do not support that.

Senator WYDEN: I'm of the view, whether it's a public option or a private option, if you don't have choice, the consumer is not going to end up getting better quality, more affordable products. It's almost like we're having this debate in this country between a public option or a private option. What people ought to really consider are the consequences of having a no choice option because that's really going to be devastating.

RAZ: So you think that this market-based approach can satisfy the demands of Democrats and Republicans?

Senator WYDEN: This is a proven model. This is a model that works for members of Congress. Remember, you're not sending anybody out into the broken individual market where insurance companies can discriminate against them. You're talking about plans and insurance products where the consumer has bargaining power. That's the kind of model that I think is going to pay off best for the consumer, and if we end up at the end of the day denying choice, I think we're going to regret it greatly.

RAZ: How do you promise that insurers will participate in these exchanges, especially if they are required to accept everyone?

Senator WYDEN: Well, you're creating a big, big market for the private insurance industry. Now, the question is whether the consumer is going to get a good deal. You can mandate anything you want in this country. You can mandate that Coca-Cola come out of the water faucets. That doesn't make it affordable in terms of the product for the consumer. So what we're talking about here, let's take some steps to make sure that they have the clout to hold the insurance lobby accountable and get good quality products.

RAZ: Are you disappointed that your ideas have not been integrated into the other plans floating around?

Senator WYDEN: First of all, if you look at what I proposed in 2006, most of the key ideas that we advanced, you know, then, they appear in one shape or form in virtually all of the bills. The question now is putting the pieces together so that in effect, you've got real health reform rather than just a collection of ideas that by themselves make sense.

RAZ: Senator Wyden, with all the passion and vitriol we've heard over the past few months, is a bipartisan bill even possible at this point?

Senator WYDEN: I continue to believe that not only is it best to have a bipartisan bill on a subject that is this complicated, that it is very doable. When you have people who are really reaching out, like Senator Bob Bennett…

RAZ: Bob Bennett from Utah.

Senator WYDEN: That's correct. From one of the reddest states in the country, you certainly shouldn't give up on the bipartisan bill.

RAZ: If the only plan standing at the end of the day is the one that looks like Max Baucus' plan, will you support that?

Senator WYDEN: I'm certainly not there now. I'm going to do everything I can to fix this bill, and I have filed more than 20 amendments. We're going to be trying to export the principles behind our effort to the Baucus legislation, and if those ideas get accepted, that's certainly going to be a big factor in whether or not I vote for the legislation.

RAZ: Ron Wyden is the senior senator from Oregon and co-sponsor with Utah Republican Robert Bennett of the Healthy Americans Act. He spoke with us from his office on Capitol Hill.

Senator Wyden, thanks for joining us.

Senator WYDEN: We'll do it again, I hope.

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