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Senate Debate on Health Reform Hinges on Affordability

As the Senate Finance Committee opens debate on the so-called Baucus plan for health care reform, the issue of affordability remains a key sticking point. After a recap of Tuesday's hearing on the bill, Susan Dentzer of the journal Health Affairs takes a closer look at costs with Judy Woodruff.

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  • SEN. MAX BAUCUS, D-Mont.:

    The mark before us today is a balanced, commonsense plan that takes the best ideas from both sides. It's designed to get the 60 votes that it needs to pass. Now the choice is up to us.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    In their opening remarks, senators fell largely along party lines. Republicans complained the bill has too many new taxes that would hurt the middle class, something President Obama promised he would not allow when he ran for president.

    Utah's Orrin Hatch.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah:

    As our deficit continues to rise and our debt triples in the next decade, all these taxes will continue to rise. This bill is laying the seeds. We are giving Washington a whole new checkbook.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Ranking Republican Charles Grassley.

  • SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa:

    This bill has new taxes on everything from Q-Tips to pacemakers and cancer screening to pregnancy tests. There's even a $60 billion across-the-board health plan tax. Experts and economists say that all of these health care taxes will be passed on to consumers.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Grassley also criticized the White House. He said President Obama's team had forced an arbitrary deadline on the committee, while he and other members of the so-called gang of six were trying to come up with a bipartisan bill.

  • SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY:

    Here we are, the cry of impatience has won out, and the artificial deadline was put in charge of this process. They have put moving quickly over moving correctly.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    The Finance Committee took a break before plowing through a seeming blizzard of amendments, more than 500 in all. But only a handful will get serious consideration, including those that deal with delivery of care, financing, and expansion of insurance coverage.

    For some Democrats and one key Republican, the biggest concerns about the bill are whether it has adequate subsidies for some uninsured and the fact that it does not allow a public option. West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller.

  • SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, D-W.Va.:

    We need to provide families with the option of enrolling in a public health insurance plan. I wish it weren't called a public health insurance plan, but just a family health insurance plan, then I think that there would be a different reaction to it. But the word "public" is not a good word these days, but that doesn't mean that the idea is not a good one.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Maine's Olympia Snowe is the one Republican on the committee that may vote for the bill.

  • SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine:

    … the mark before us is a solid starting point, but we are far from the finish line. We simply cannot address one-sixth of our economy and a matter of such personal and financial significance to every American on the legislative fast track.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Snowe has offered an amendment making government-run public insurance an emergency option, if coverage remains too expensive for some Americans. The so-called trigger option would set up a government-run plan in any state where affordable coverage was not available to 95 percent of residents.

  • LEN NICHOLS, New America Foundation:

    She's very much engaged and on board with where they are.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Health care economist Len Nichols, who heads the health policy program at the New America Foundation, says Senator Snowe could be the lynchpin for more Republican support.

  • LEN NICHOLS:

    I think Senator Snowe's idea of a trigger — that is to say, a possible kind of competing plan that might be brought into some markets, not all, but some markets, if there aren't two competing plans that offer affordable premiums to people, I think that's an idea that might find traction on both sides of the aisle.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    This afternoon, Baucus announced modifications to his draft, designed to keep liberal Democrats happy and appease fiscally conservative members of his own party, who've worried about the cost of reform.

    Among the 36 pages of changes: Subsidies for moderate-income Americans would be increased to make coverage more affordable, for a family of four making up to $88,000 a year and individuals making up to $43,000.

    There would be lower penalties for those who do not buy health insurance — $1,900 for a family of four, instead of $3,800 — and fewer high-cost or so- called Cadillac plans would be taxed.

    The Senate Finance Committee is expected to continue working on the bill this week.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And to Judy Woodruff.

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