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Democrats Force Changes In Baucus Health Bill

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Democrats Force Changes In Baucus Health Bill

Democrats Force Changes In Baucus Health Bill

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A health care overhaul bill is expected to finally emerge this week from the Senate Finance Committee. This bill was supposed to be the one that could win at least some Republican backing.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the committee chairman, Max Baucus, found himself scrambling just to win over enough Democrats.

JULIE ROVNER: As the Finance Committee wrapped up its formal debate around 2 a.m. Friday, its top Republican, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, pronounced the verdict Committee Chairman Baucus least wanted to hear.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: You know, there's a product here that most of the people on my side, maybe all of the people on my side, may not vote for next week.

ROVNER: The bill Baucus originally brought to his committee three weeks ago was mostly the product of months-long negotiations between three Democrats on the committee and three Republicans. In order to try to win some of those Republican votes, Baucus made a lot of concessions, many made Democrats furious.

CHIP: the bill would have eliminated the government's popular children's health insurance program for many children, instead making them eligible for subsidized private insurance through the new insurance exchanges. That didn't sit very well with people like West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who helped create the CHIP program in the first place.

JAY ROCKEFELLER: Children have special requirements, special medical needs. And it's set up to give them those medical needs. And if you throw them into the exchange, which is the farmer's market, that is, all the private insurance markets competing with each other, first of all, how are they going to know what they're going to get? How are they going to know where to go to get whatever they're going to get?

ROVNER: The proposed change to CHIP also alarmed children's and other health advocacy groups who spent much of the past two years working to get the program renewed.

Bruce Lesley heads First Focus, a bipartisan group that works on issues related to children and families. He says what makes CHIP so valuable to moderate income families is that they don't have to pay very much for the coverage.

BRUCE LESLEY: Children would only be - are only exposed in CHIP to about, on average, about two percent of the cost of the coverage.

ROVNER: But his group commissioned a study to see what would happen if children were switched to private insurance instead, and he said the difference would be dramatic.

LESLEY: Children would be exposed from anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of the cost of the plan. So the out-of-pocket costs in reform would've been 10 to 15 times higher. So, kids would've been left worse off.

ROVNER: Armed with that information, Rockefeller drafted an amendment to put those children back into the CHIP program. It passed Thursday night with the votes of all but one Democrat, plus Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine. She's the only Republican considered a possible vote for the bill. The change infuriated other Republicans, though, including Grassley.

GRASSLEY: This is contrary to everything we've been working for.

ROVNER: And Nevada's John Ensign, who questioned one of the committee staff counsels about the potential impact of the change on everyone else who'll be buying insurance.

JOHN ENSIGN: Does moving children into government- run coverage make the private coverage pool more expensive to cover them?

NORRIS: I believe it does.

ROVNER: But that was just one of several changes Democrats forced Baucus to make. Other changes decreased the penalties for people who don't buy coverage under the so-called individual mandate and gave states the option of creating a new type of plan for low-income people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Rockefeller, one of the panel's more liberal members, hasn't promised yet to vote for the bill, but he says he's a lot happier with it than he was.

ROCKEFELLER: It bodes better, I think, for good solutions.

ROVNER: The changes made during the nearly two weeks of amending the bill appear to have solidified enough support to get the bill through the Finance Committee. Whether it will be enough to get the bill through the full Senate? That's a battle for another day.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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