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The Latest News On Healthcare Reform

February 17, 2010
Source: www.humana.com

Picture of President's health care summit is getting clearer

Most of the talk about health reform is now focused on the bipartisan summit the President has called for February 25. But although putting a group of Republicans and Democrats in the same room may be a good start, there's a lot of disagreement over what should happen after that.

President Obama says he will offer a version of a bill online ahead of time and has asked Republicans to do the same. That means congressional Republicans would have to agree among themselves to a singular approach. The President has urged Democrats to come to an agreement over the differences in their bills, too.

But John Boehner, House Minority leader, believes, as he said on Saturday, "A productive bipartisan discussion" should begin with "a clean sheet of paper." Instead, Boehner continued, "the President and his party intend to arrive with a new bill written behind closed doors exclusively by Democrats."

However, the President has made it clear he's not willing to start with a clean sheet of paper. "I am going to be starting from scratch in the sense that I will be open to any ideas that help promote these goals," Obama said. "What I will not do, what I don't think makes sense and I don't think the American people want to see, would be another year of partisan wrangling around these issues, another six months or eight months or nine months worth of hearings in every single committee in the House and the Senate in which there's a lot of posturing."

So there is still a possibility that the Republicans will not choose to participate in the summit. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he will work with the White House "to maximize the effectiveness of the meeting." But most Republicans seem to agree with Senate GOP Whip John Kyl, who said on Sunday that he believes the Democrats intend to "jam the bill through that the President has supported in the past," using the budget reconciliation process.

On Friday, a letter was sent to summit participants saying this will be the format for the event: President Obama will offer opening remarks, which will be followed by comments from a Republican leader and a Democratic leader. The President then will moderate a discussion on four topics: insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage and the impact of health legislation on the deficit.

Officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation also have been invited to participate in the summit. Read the invitation here.

Evan Bayh bows out

Senator Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat from Indiana, rocked the political world on Monday by announcing he would not run for reelection. He has been very popular in his home state he's a former governor who won his two Senate elections with more than 60 percent of the vote, and his campaign account holds $13 million. But four days before the filing deadline, he announced, "I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress." He said, "For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the people's business is not being done."

Larry Sabato, an often-quoted professor of politics at University of Virginia, called the news "a disaster" for Democrats. "Not only will they probably lose a seat, but Bayh's decision and condemnation of Congress adds to the impression people have that things aren't going well in Washington." (In a New York Times/CBS News poll last week, 75 percent of the respondents said they disapproved of the job Congress was doing, and only 8 percent said members of Congress deserved to be reelected.)

Sen. Bayh's announcement was a blow because now five Democratic senators have decided not to run for reelection this fall, and an additional group of incumbents, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, are in danger of losing their races. Still, Republicans have their challenges this fall, too, including in Kentucky, where Jim Bunning's retirement creates an open seat.

WellPoint rate hike creates national stir

Last week, WellPoint's Anthem Blue Cross unit announced that rates in the California individual health insurance market would increase as much as 39 percent beginning March 1. That got the Obama administration's attention.

In fact, the administration immediately began to use that announcement to help make the case that comprehensive health reform must be passed, and to get Republicans to the negotiating table. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Rahm Emanuel, the President's chief of staff, wrote a letter to congressional leaders saying that if comprehensive health insurance reform is not completed, this "enormous rate hike will be just a preview of coming attractions...Premiums will continue to rise (and) millions more will lose their coverage altogether." Sebelius also asked WellPoint to explain its big premium increases, and a congressional hearing with the company's CEO is planned on February 24 the day before the President's health care summit. Meanwhile, in a speech on the Senate floor last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid attacked WellPoint and other "greedy insurance companies that care more about profits than people," saying, "We don't have to let greedy health insurance executives drag down our future."

WellPoint responded quickly to Sebelius' request, saying that there were many reasons for the premium increases, including an aging population, increased use of medical services and technology, "more intensive diagnostic testing," and a weak economy that is leading healthier individual insurance buyers to drop coverage or buy cheaper plans. "Individuals are far more likely to keep their coverage if they are less healthy and require ongoing services," WellPoint's response said, "and a higher proportion of individuals who do not need services disenroll or choose not to enroll." Read the WellPoint letter here.

Sebelius criticized WellPoint's response, saying, "It remains difficult to understand how a company that made $2.7 billion in the last quarter of 2009 alone can justify massive increases that will leave consumers with nothing but bad options. High healthcare costs alone cannot account for a premium increase that is 10 times higher than national health spending growth."

Later, Oppenheimer's senior analyst in managed health care criticized Sebelius for her "troubling" actions and "decidedly political tone" in an open letter that ran in Oppenheimer's weekly report to its clients. "There's no question the individual market in the country is broken," he wrote. "But you're wasting time fighting a symptom of the disease, rather than the root cause. I'm sure WellPoint would be happy to provide a full summary of how often they've been asked by hospitals for rate increases of more than 40 percent, and the hospitals I'm sure would be happy to provide detailed information on how much money they lose serving Medicare and Medicaid patients each year, which is a major reason why they need to increase commercial rates so much.

"It may feel good to raise a firestorm about WellPoint's individual pricing, but like much of the health reform legislation proposed by the Democrats last year that did almost nothing to control costs, it won't accomplish much in the end."

On Saturday, WellPoint agreed to postpone its rate increases until May 1 so California state regulators have more time to review the details.

What the people want

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll says that Americans blame both the Democrats and Republicans for a lack of cooperation in Washington and that most people want the two parties to keep working together to pass health reform.

  • Almost 6 in 10 said Republicans aren't doing enough to forge compromises with President Obama on important issues
  • More than 4 in 10 said Obama is doing too little to win Republican support
  • 56 percent of independents see Republicans as being too unbending; 50 percent see the President as too unbending; 28 percent said both sides are doing too little to find agreement
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans want Congress to keep working to pass comprehensive health reform including 56 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans
Read the poll here.

Jobs bill scaled back

Last Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid surprised a lot of people by announcing the Senate would not take action on the bipartisan Baucus-Grassley jobs bill, but would begin the jobs debate by taking up a smaller legislative package. The smaller package contains none of the health care provisions, including the one to extend COBRA premium subsidies.

However, Reid suggested that additional components of the Baucus-Grassley bill may be considered after the initial jobs bill moves through the Senate.

Get involved. Contact Congress about health reform at MyHealthReform.org.

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