‘Little Progress’ Made on Health Insurance Issue in Stimulus Bill
House and Senate lawmakers "made little progress" over the weekend in negotiations on an economic stimulus bill and could not resolve differences over a plan to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, the Washington Post reports. The Post reports that the dispute "is rooted in philosophical differences" between Republicans and Democrats and that neither party has "found the right formula to bridge the gap" (Kessler, Washington Post, 12/17). Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said that the issue represents "one of the landmines" in the negotiations (Earle et al., CongressDaily, 12/14).
House and Senate negotiators met late into the night Saturday to debate a plan to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, but Democrats "remained firm" in their opposition to a compromise proposal that President Bush offered last week and "insisted that their proposal be accepted" (Washington Post, 12/17). Bush's plan includes a $30 billion provision to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks and provide an "advanceable" 50% tax credit -- up to $294 a month for families -- to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance (California Healthline, 12/13). Democrats said that the proposal could "ultimately undermine employer-provided coverage" (McKinnon, Wall Street Journal, 12/17). In addition, they said that the plan would establish the "groundwork for the administration's goal of health insurance tax credits for all Americans" (Washington Post, 12/17). According to the Wall Street Journal, "dismantling the employer link to health coverage is a longstanding goal" of Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who has proposed a system where individuals would receive tax credits to purchase health insurance. The Journal reports that Thomas considers Bush's compromise proposal a "foot in the door, believing that if the credits work, he'd have a precedent to point to in reaching his greater objective" (Wall Street Journal, 12/17). However, an administration official said yesterday that the plan would "get benefits to displaced workers quickly" (Washington Post, 12/17). A senior administration official last week also "dismissed any concern over undermining the existing health care system" (Wall Street Journal, 12/17).
Democrats have proposed a rival compromise proposal that would provide a 75% subsidy to help unemployed workers purchase health coverage through COBRA and additional funds to allow states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for the program. 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. Senate Democrats had proposed a bill, which Republicans blocked last month, 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. The legislation also 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 (California Healthline, 11/15). Speaking last week on FOX News' "Hannity & Colmes," Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said, "I think the Democrats got it right in a little more help for the unemployed with their health insurance" ("Hannity & Colmes," FOX News, 12/13). An administration official said the White House would consider a plan that would "go beyond" a 50% tax credit and "boost the amount of money available" to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, but added that "it is pretty clear they (Democrats) have no room to negotiate on this" (Washington Post, 12/17). White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that the "votes are there" in the Senate to pass Bush's plan, adding, "The only question is, will the Senate act?" (Anderson, Los Angeles Times, 12/15).
A Los Angeles Times editorial today states that the economic stimulus bill proposed by Senate Democrats represents the "better deal" for the nation. The "infusion" of funds that the legislation would provide states through Medicaid would "help prevent the predicted cuts in state health care funding," the editorial points out, adding that "by distributing money immediately to the nation's battered hospitals, doctors and patients," the legislation would likely improve the economy more than the House GOP bill (Los Angeles Times, 12/17). Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal editorial warns that Daschle "wants to deny ... any tax cuts that might actually stimulate" the economy in favor of "loading up" provisions for unemployed workers, concluding, "And it looks as if he's going to prevail" (Wall Street Journal, 12/17).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.