Senate Weighs Health Care Overhaul
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The Senate returned today from its Thanksgiving recess and formally began debating its healthcare overhaul. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid warned that in the tradition of the Senate the debate could be a long one.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We'll do this work transparently. And we'll do this work tirelessly. That may mean debating and voting late at night. It definitely means, I say to everyone within the sound of my voice, the next weekends - plural - we will be working.
BLOCK: And Republican leader Mitch McConnell made it clear why his party will fight the bill long and hard.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The notion that we would even consider spending trillions of dollars we don't have in a way that majority of Americans don't even want is proof that this health care bill is completely and totally out of touch with the American people.
BLOCK: NPR's Julie Rovner joins us with a preview of the Senate debate to come. Julie, we know this debate might take a while. What should we be looking for and watching for?
JULIE ROVNER: Well, there will be lots of amendments, some of them obviously more significant than others and some on hot button social issues like abortion and illegal immigration. But clearly one of the biggest issues is what we call the public option. Should there be a government sponsored plan that people can choose as one possibility in this new insurance marketplace that will be available to individuals and small businesses.
Now, when it comes to that public option, you need to keep in mind that in order to get the bill out of the Senate, Democrats will need 60 votes, just as they did to get the bill to the floor for debate in that dramatic vote that we had a week ago Saturday night. And the problem is that there are some Democrats who say they won't vote for a bill with a public option in it and at least one, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, actually an Independent, who says he won't vote for a bill that doesn't have a public option in it. So the math is pretty daunting.
BLOCK: Okay, but we don't expect that to come up for a little while. So, what is the Senate debating today?
ROVNER: Well, that's right. The Senate likes to ease its way into these big debates. Today, they've started out with one amendment each from the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats' amendment would expand coverage of preventive care for women even more than what is already in the bill.
The Republican amendment would cancel the spending reductions for Medicare, which, of course, accounts for nearly half of the bill's funding. The Republicans have been trying to make the case that the Medicare reductions would hurt seniors, take services away, which I might point out actually contradicts independent analysts like the Congressional Budget Office, what they say.
BLOCK: Now, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report today about how this bill would affect health insurance premiums. What did the CBO find in there?
ROVNER: Well, it's a little bit complicated and both sides are already using the report selectively to make their case. But the bottom line is this: If you're among the five-sixth of a population that get insurance on the job, this bill won't have a big impact on the health insurance premiums you pay. They'll either stay the same or go down by up to about three percentage points.
Changes would come for people who buy their own coverage, the so-called individual market. The analysis found, on average, premiums would go up by about 10 to 13 percent for this group. But there's an enormous caveat here. They'll get a lot more coverage for those increased costs. So, no more plans that have ten or $15,000 deductible. No more denying care to people with preexisting conditions.
Meanwhile, for the 57 percent of people in this group who buy their own coverage, who will be eligible for government subsidies, their premiums would actually go down a lot, between 56 and 59 percent. But still, as Republicans point out, this is not the $2,500 a year premium reduction that President Obama promised everyone on the campaign trail.
BLOCK: And, Julie, what about a timeframe? We heard Harry Reid there talking about working weekends, how long do you think the Senate's going to be hashing this out?
ROVNER: Well, you know, I still keep hearing people talk about getting a bill to the president's desk by Christmas. There's not a lot I can guarantee about this, but can pretty much guarantee that that's not going to happen. At this point, getting a bill out of the Senate by Christmas is an ambitious task. Then they have to make a deal with the House and that could take several more weeks.
BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Julie Rovner. Thanks, Julie.
ROVNER: You're welcome.
BLOCK: And do you have questions about the Senate health care bill? Julie is going to help answer some of them on the air later this week. You can send us your questions by going to NPR.org and click on Contact Us. Please don't forget to put the word health in the subject line.
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