TOPICS > Health

Obama Pitches Insurance Rate Agency in Run-up to Summit

February 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Days before a bipartisan health care summit convenes, the White House unveiled a revised health care proposal Monday featuring a new insurance rate agency. Judy Woodruff sits down with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to discuss the possible outcome of the summit and of the reforms.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The president today released his version of what a health care reform bill should look like. It was part of a make-or-break bid to get the issue moving again in Congress.

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser begins our coverage.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The president issued his health care reform plan this morning, designed to cover 31 million uninsured Americans. It was posted on the White House Web site just ahead of Mr. Obama’s televised bipartisan health care summit on Thursday.

The bill’s major new feature would be a new federal health insurance rate authority. It would have the power to deny premium increases considered unreasonable or unjustified.

U.S. VICE PRESICENT JOSEPH BIDEN: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is passed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Much of the rest was based the Senate’s health care bill that passed last December, with some modifications from the House version.

The president’s proposal would provide more money than either the House or the Senate to all states for expansion of Medicaid. But it strips the Senate’s controversial Medicaid deal, made to win the vote of Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

The president opted to keep a tax on high-cost insurance plans, but he would delay implementation until 2018. And it raises the income threshold for the tax from $23,000 for a family of four to $27,500. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs characterized all of this as a way forward.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: I think it’s a starting point in as much — in as much as Republicans come to Thursday’s meeting with constructive proposals that they’re willing to discuss. I think that’s the key to having a successful bipartisan approach to this legislation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republican reaction to the president’s plan was overwhelmingly negative.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: Americans want the administration to scrap its massive government scheme in favor of an incremental approach to health care reform. Unfortunately, the White House still seems unwilling to do the one thing Americans want most. It’s still clinging to a massive bill that Americans have overwhelmingly rejected again and again for months.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is the most specific the president has been about what he wants included in a bill. For months, amid much criticism, he’s left the legislating to the legislators. Now he’s trying to revive what has been his number-one domestic issue, even as members of his own party are increasingly nervous about fall elections.

Ever since Senate Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority last month, they have been looking at a process called reconciliation to pass a bill. It requires only a simple 51- vote majority. But even that isn’t a sure thing. On the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she looks forward to discussing the plan at Thursday’s health care summit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the reaction on Capitol Hill to both the substance and the politics of the president’s plan, we are joined by two key members of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire.

Let’s talk substance first.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

SEN. JUDD GREGG, R-N.H.: Thank you, Judy.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN,D-Ohio: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator Brown, to you first.

What is there that you like, that you don’t like in the president’s proposal? What do you make of it?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: I think it’s still a good — what he’s put together is — takes us forward significantly. It’s, I think, what he’s done on everything, from the way to pay for this, to coverage, to tax incentives for small business to provide coverage.

The insurance reforms are especially important, that people can stay on their parents’ plan, young people, until they’re 26. All of those are important components of this bill, the prevention, the wellness provisions.

There are — there are a number of Republican ideas in this bill. Judd and I sat on the Health Committee last summer when we — when we wrote this bill. We accepted 160 Republican amendments. So, there is a Republican flavor to this bill.

On some of the big questions, there is philosophical disagreement, but the country clearly voted for change to move forward on this health insurance legislation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Gregg, the White House is saying this is a starting point. What do you see here that you could work with?

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Very little. Very little. I mean, it’s basically built off of the Senate bill, which was a $2.5 trillion expansion in the size of government.

This proposal adds another $200 billion or $300 billion to that number. And now it introduces a brand-new social industrial engineering exercise, which is that you’re going to have price controls over health care insurance, which, basically, inevitably, leads to less insurance being available in the private sector, and you’re probably pushing people towards a public sector market, which is something I can’t support.

There should have been an attempt here to step back and start over again, and say, listen, there are things that there are agreement on — there is agreement on — between the two parties. And they are fairly substantive. And they could do a lot to make health care better in this country, make delivery system better.

Let’s start with those items which we know we have agreement on, rather than build off of a bill which basically was rammed through the Senate Christmas Eve and without any amendments really being allowed at all to speak of once the bill was amended by Senator Reid, and then sent to the House, where it can’t pass, so they’re putting together this bill, which is basically trying to buy off constituencies on the left in the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Brown, what about Senator Gregg’s point, that this is essentially a reprise, for the most part, of what the Senate passed several months ago?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: I would start with this, Judy, that, first of all, it’s not been rammed through the Senate. This bill has been in the works for months and months and months and months. He’s saying, on the one hand, it’s sort of the same thing as we had.

Well, we have been debating this and talking about this, as I said, since — since May and June, when we did our markup. But, more than that, this bill doesn’t — it doesn’t — it pays for itself. It doesn’t — it’s not this big government takeover that Republicans say.

And when I hear my friends like Judd — and I respect Judd and work with him on a couple of committees — I hear him say we should start over, that’s — this whole — this whole process has been about delay. The negotiations in the Finance Committee, the gang of six, went on and on and on…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: … when at least two of the three Republicans in the Finance Committee had no interest really in coming to any kind of conclusion that we could all agree on.

So, the fact is we need to move forward on this. We can continue to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: If we start again, it’s — where is it going to lead to? It’s not going to go anywhere. And they know that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Gregg, I want to ask you about that. But I also want — rather than rehashing everything that happened in the past…

SEN. JUDD GREGG: We have been around this track. There’s no question about it. It’s a little deja vu all over again, isn’t it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were — you’re critical of this new federal authority to regulate health insurance rates. Don’t the states already do something like this? So, what’s wrong with the federal government doing something like this?

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Well, I think you’re essentially setting up a structure which is bound to fail, in the — in the sense that, if the federal government is going to start stepping in and saying — well, let’s take examples where we have had these very significant rate increases, which nobody is very happy, about in various states.

And the federal government is going to step in and arbitrarily say, you have got to cut that back by 15, 20, 30, 40, 50 percent. What’s the practical event — what’s the practical effect of that? You’re basically putting in place price controls.

And what happens with price controls? Well, that means that the people who are delivering that health care insurance are probably going to make it not be able to — to make ends meet in their own businesses, so they’re going to drop out of coverage of people who presently have health insurance.

And you will have less product available to people. That’s inevitable. You will end up with some level of rationing. And, inevitably, what you’re going to get here is something that I think Sherry probably does agree with, which is a plan where the federal government has to step in and pick up all those people who are forced off of health care because the federal government forced the health insurance companies not to be able to sell the coverage because they couldn’t make ends meet trying to sell the coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: So, in the end, you end up with a system which is basically pushing us towards a single-payer nationalized system, which is the goal, I believe, of this — of this proposal specifically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to get Senator Brown to respond.

And I apologize, because we are having some lighting issues there. We are able to see you, but the light is going up and down.

Senator Brown, what about the point that he just made?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Well, I — the — I have been working on health insurance issues in the House of Representatives before I was in the Senate for a number of years.

And the most important benefactor to the Republican Party is the insurance industry. And I have seen them always defend insurance industry practices. They did nothing in the years that President Bush had a strong Republican majority in the House and a good majority in the Senate. They did nothing to try to rein in insurance companies.

And this is — we don’t — I mean, I don’t want to have to deal with insurance companies in this way. I don’t want to say to them you’re going to have to cut back. But when — when they continue to abuse the public interest like this, it’s why so many companies are struggling so much because of insurance costs.

And the insurance industry clearly has gamed the system. They’re always one step ahead of the sheriff. And it’s important, if we have to make rules about them and adopt these strong consumer protections, that’s what we ought to do.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Well, obviously…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Gregg…

SEN. JUDD GREGG: … the goal here is — is to have the federal government be the insurer. I mean, that’s the goal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to…

SEN. JUDD GREGG: I don’t think most Americans want that, to be very honest with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you, Senator Gregg, are Republicans going to come to the table on Thursday with their own plan or any time between now and then? Because that’s what the White House has been asking Republicans to do.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: I actually sent a plan down. It was a very comprehensive plan. We call it CPR. And it covers all the elements that the president is concerned about. It gets everybody insured. It reduces the out-year cost of health care, drives down health care costs. It lets people keep their insurance if they want to keep it. It uses a market-oriented approach, has a whole series of ideas in it. Sent it down to the White House.

I actually did get a call back from Rahm Emanuel saying, well, what does this really mean?

I went over it with him. Unfortunately…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that plan — is that…

SEN. JUDD GREGG: It got left on the cutting room floor, because what they brought forward was just the opposite of what I had suggested, which was a fairly aggressive proposal, and not necessarily one that maybe has the majority support on our side of the aisle, but which you could get some Republicans to say, yes, that makes sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying, are there several — there are several Republican proposals out there, is what you’re saying; is that right?

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Well, there are. There are a couple of very good ones.

And, in fact, you have a very significant bipartisan one, the Wyden-Bennett one, which had 20 Senate members on it, 10 Democrats, 10 Republicans, which was a very thorough, comprehensive proposal, and used the private markets to generate coverage for every American. And it was a really excellent proposal.

And I had reservations about some parts of it, but I thought it was good enough so that I — I sponsored it. So, there are a lot of other starting places than the House and the Senate bills, which passed only with Democratic votes.

And, really, I know Sherry says there — there was participation here. But when you get a bill, the guts of a bill on a Saturday afternoon, and you’re told you have to vote the next Wednesday, which is Christmas Eve, and there are no amendments allowed between that Saturday and that Wednesday on the biggest piece of legislation I have ever confronted…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

SEN. JUDD GREGG: … that is not the way the Senate is supposed to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Brown, what about all the talk we’re hearing about the — the Democrats may be prepared to do this through reconciliation, which a shorthand way of saying 51 votes needed only. The White House today didn’t rule that out. Do you think the chances are that could happen?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Well, I don’t think you do rule that out. I mean, the Republicans rammed through tax cuts in — for — for the wealthy three different times using reconciliation.

We’re the only democratic country, I think, in the world that requires a supermajority that Republicans have forced us to do basically everything under this supermajority. And a majority of people making a decision in a legislative body is hardly anti-democratic with a small D.

So, if Republicans continue to block and continue to filibuster — they have done it over 100 times, breaking all records — then we need to do what we need to do to pass a good health care legislation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, if that happens…

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Judy, one more thing — 390 people every day in my state lose their insurance. And the more we delay, the more people are hurting.

And I’m tired of this kind of — this kind of sort of obstructionist tactic that we have seen over and over again.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Well, it’s not obstructionism to try to get this thing right. And a lot more people in your state, Sherry, are going to lose their insurance if you start arbitrarily fixing prices on insurance, because you’re going to drive people out of their capacity to buy insurance, because your insurance — insurers will not be available.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: That’s not what we want to do.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Well, no, you don’t.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: I mean, understand I accept your point, which is we should go to a single-payer system. But I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it gives you the best health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can tell..

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: You’re the one that keeps saying I’m — we’re advocating for a single-payer system. Most Democrats aren’t. Most Democrats want to see people covered under reasonable rates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can tell there are some strong views.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: All right.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: There are just a few.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Right.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: But, hopefully, we can have an open debate on the floor of the Senate and have amendments and let the Senate work as well.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Thanks. Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we appreciate your airing your views with us today.

Senator Gregg, Senator Brown, thank you, both.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Thank you, Judy.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Thanks.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: Thank you.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: Thanks.