Wall Street Journal Reports on New Push to Help the Uninsured
The Wall Street Journal reports today that "the war on terrorism could lead to some of the biggest changes in federal health care policy in years" regarding the uninsured. After years of "wrangling over how" to help the uninsured through private health insurance expansion, the Journal reports that the "economic damage" caused by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon might "force action on the problem." Robert Helms, director of health policy for the American Enterprise Institute, said, "This event in September has certainly changed the politics. Now people are willing to put money into things." The Bush administration and Democratic lawmakers seem to agree that legislation aimed at stimulating the economy and assisting unemployed workers should include health insurance provisions, the Journal reports. However, a GOP-sponsored House bill (HR 3090) passed Wednesday does not include such provisions. The Journal reports that "some conservatives worry" that subsidizing the cost of private insurance for the unemployed would "create a massive new entitlement" and would also benefit workers who are "relatively well off."
Though Democrats and the administration are in agreement on providing health insurance for the unemployed, the main "sticking point" in the "stimulus debate" seems to be over how to do so. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has proposed legislation that would allow more unemployed workers to qualify for Medicaid and would provide a 50% subsidy for COBRA premiums (McKinnon, Wall Street Journal, 10/26). 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 (California Healthline, 9/27). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other Democrats are "pressing" for a 75% subsidy. Senate Republicans, however, want to grant states money that could be used for COBRA subsidies or other benefits for the unemployed such as income support or job training. GOP lawmakers want to keep these grants separate from the economic stimulus package that they plan to release next Tuesday. The administration has expressed concern over the Democratic plan because of its size and because COBRA subsidies only help workers who were insured through their employers. The Journal reports that Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill "suggested to GOP senators recently" that because of the COBRA subsidies in the Democratic stimulus package, he would ask the president to veto it. Democrats however believe that President Bush, "whose father paid a steep political price for appearing insensitive to the effects of the [economic] downturn in 1991," is likely to "go to greater lengths to respond" to the needs of uninsured workers (Wall Street Journal, 10/26).
Meanwhile, the Washington Times reports that the Baucus bill may not have enough votes to clear the Senate Finance Committee. Though Democrats have an 11-10 majority on the panel, several committee members -- including Sens. John Breaux (D-La.), Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) -- were "among a dozen Democrats who broke ranks to vote for" Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut package earlier this year. The Times reports that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle may "use his leadership prerogatives" to bring the bill directly to the floor if it cannot get past the committee, though Senate Democratic officials were unable to give a timeframe for any action. Believing Democrats to be "hopelessly divided," Senate GOP leaders are drafting their own legislation, which the Times reports will include several tax relief provisions (Lambro, Washington Times, 10/26).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.