Health Disputes May Slow Stimulus Agreement
House and Senate leaders met last night to discuss a compromise on economic stimulus legislation -- which would likely include a provision to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance -- "signifying the first movement" toward an agreement on a bill, the Washington Post reports. But health insurance issues represent some of the "biggest stumbling blocks" to compromise. Both Republicans and Democrats support provisions to help the unemployed, but the Post reports that Democrats have offered a "much more generous" proposal -- "especially on helping to pay for health insurance." Democrats also propose providing subsidies directly to unemployed workers, while Republicans would help them by sending funds to states (Kessler/Dewar, Washington Post, 11/29). "We think it's very important to address, first and foremost, the workers, the unemployment compensation and health benefits," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said (Sammon, Washington Times, 11/29). But Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that Democrats must decide between "wanting to help these people [with health insurance] or making a political statement" (Washington Post, 11/29).
Earlier this month, Senate Republicans blocked a bill, proposed by Democrats, that would have provided $14.3 billion to extend benefits for unemployed workers by 13 weeks and $12.3 billion to help unemployed workers purchase health coverage through COBRA. COBRA, the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allows unemployed workers to retain health coverage under their former employers' insurance plans by paying 102% of the premiums. In addition, the legislation would have allowed states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for COBRA and provided $1.4 billion to boost the federal match to states for Medicaid. The legislation also included a $15 billion provision sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to improve homeland security, including bioterrorism and food safety measures. The House in October approved a different $100 billion GOP-sponsored bill, supported by President Bush, that would increase funding for the Social Services Block Grant program by $3 billion to allow states to provide health insurance to unemployed workers and their families. Yesterday's 40-minute meeting could lead to a "breakthrough in the tortured legislative battle," although lawmakers on both sides "showed little willingness to scale back their competing visions" for legislation, the Post reports (Washington Post, 11/29).
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Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said that lawmakers may reach a compromise over the weekend and vote on a bill next week (Norton/Earle, CongressDaily, 11/28). According to Grassley, the compromise bill would likely include extended unemployment benefits and health insurance provisions (Norton/Earle, CongressDaily/AM, 11/29). The House yesterday "overwhelmingly" approved a $20 billion anti-terrorism bill, part a larger $318 billion defense spending bill, which included $2 billion that HHS would use to purchase vaccines, conduct research and "upgrad[e]" state and local health departments (Fram, AP/Detroit News, 11/29).