A group of 10 Senate leaders reached a consensus Tuesday night to resolve disagreements as to whether a public option should be included in the final version of a health care reform bill. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declined to disclose details of the new deal until the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzes it.
In a prepared statement issued late Tuesday evening following days of round-the-clock negotiations between five conservative and five progressive Democrats, Reid said the broad agreement lawmakers reached “includes a public option,” sharply disputing published reports that said he and his colleagues have abandoned a government-run plan.
The House passed sweeping health care reform legislation, President Barack Obama's top domestic priority, last month that included a public option. Reid hopes to pass the Senate bill around Christmas.
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said, "Senators are making great progress and we're pleased that they're working together to find common ground toward options that increase choice and competition."
Reid said the deal reached Tuesday on the public option and other facets of the proposal will ensure health insurance companies "face more competition" and "the American people will have more choices."
"I know not all 10 Senators in the room agree on every single detail of this, nor will all 60 members of my caucus," Reid said. "But I know we all appreciate the hard work that these progressives and moderates have done to move this historic debate forward."
Still, Reid refused to discuss specific details of the compromise on the public option and explained to reporters during a news conference that “if you start talking about the plan and start shipping it around, it will be made public.”
“We want not that to be the case because we want [a CBO analysis on costs] before we start giving all the details even to our own members,” Reid said, adding that he had a 20-minute conversation with CBO head Doug Elmendorf and intends to send him details of the plan Wednesday.
Senators Russ Feingold, Charles Schumer, Jay Rockefeller, Tom Harkin, Sherrod Brown and conservative Democratic Senators Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Thomas Carper and Mark Pryor brokered the deal.
Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 54 to 45 to reject an amendment proposed by Nelson prohibiting government-funded health insurance plans from providing abortion coverage.
Nelson’s office said Monday “provisions in the Senate bill allowing public funding for abortion are one of several key concerns [he] has with the bill that must be addressed to win his support for the legislation.”
The absence of an abortion amendment as well as the inclusion of a government-run insurance proposal in a final version of a health care reform bill has, in recent weeks, threatened to derail passage of the legislation as conservative Democrats indicated they would vote against a plan that called for the federal government to compete with private insurers. Reid will need the support of 60 senators who caucus with Democrats to avoid a Republican-led filibuster.
Even though Reid insisted that particulars of the compromise remain under wraps, rumors began to circulate Tuesday evening that said Democrats agreed to drop the coveted public option from the bill and replace it with a nonprofit national health insurance plan offered by private insurers in order to win the support of their conservative colleagues who they caucus with.
Indeed, the Associated Press and Politico, citing unnamed sources, reported that Democrats decided to set aside the public option in favor of the national health insurance plan or a “trigger,” which calls for a government-run plan to begin only if private health insurers fail to provide affordable coverage under the new national plan.
The New York Times, citing Senate aides, reported that if the private plans “did not meet certain goals for making affordable coverage available to all Americans...then the government itself would offer a new insurance plan, somewhat like the ‘public option...’”
“In place of a [public option], originally designed as a way of forcing competition on private industry, officials said the Democrats had tentatively settled on a private insurance arrangement to be supervised by the federal agency [the Office of Personnel Management] that oversees the system through which lawmakers purchase coverage,” AP reported.
The grassroots campaign Healthcare For America Now (HCAN), which is made up of more than 1,000 progressive-leaning organizations, said "using nonprofits to replace a public option won't work."
"To meet the goals of lowering health care costs and keeping insurance companies honest, a public option must be publicly established and accountable and operating nationally when the Exchanges start," the group said in a statement. "In fact, with half of people in private insurance currently enrolled in nonprofit plans, they are part of the problem.
"We have said from day one that we believe the best way to create competition, lower prices, and ensure Americans get the quality, affordable health care they deserve is for Congress to pass comprehensive health care reform including the choice of a public health insurance option.”
To win the support of liberal Democrats, AP reported, the arrangement would expand Medicare coverage as early as 2011 to “uninsured Americans” beginning at age 55. Currently, individuals aged 65 and older are eligible for Medicare.
Both news reports noted that adjusting Medicare eligibility requirements essentially amounted to expanding a government-run health care program to older Americans thereby continuing to keep one form of a public option in place.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), whose support Reid is trying to win, however, was skeptical of the Medicare proposal, "signaling that her support for an emerging public option compromise will be difficult to secure," Politico reported.
“My deep concern is about the breadth and scale of this legislation, taking it in a more expansionistic approach for government’s role rather than the reverse,” Snowe told reporters. “You can design incentives in this legislation to maximize the power of the marketplace in making sure the industry performs.”
Although AP, Politico and a handful of other news reports said Democrats virtually abandoned a full-fledged public option, Reid insisted it is still on the table.
“Let me just say, we have seen all kinds of articles in newspapers that Senator Schumer, Senator Pryor, I have said things,” such as “the public option is gone. It’s not true. Ok. Everyone understand that,” Reid told reporters. “So we are not going into detail. But you have heard to this point, you could be surprised what we’ve sent to CBO.”
Pryor said Tuesday he believes "when people see this [proposal] they'll really like what we've done."
Yet a statement issued Tuesday by Sen. Feingold immediately after the talks concluded called into question the veracity of Reid’s assertions that the public option was still alive.
“While I appreciate the willingness of all parties to engage in good-faith discussions, I do not support proposals that would replace the public option in the bill with a purely private approach,” Feingold said. “We need to have some competition for the insurance industry to keep rates down and save taxpayer dollars. I will base my vote on the bill on the entirety of what is in the bill, and whether I think the bill is good for Wisconsin.”