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Former Senate leaders push healthcare compromise

Proposal aims to bridge party differences

BIPARTISAN EFFORT Charles Grassley said it 'should encourage' lawmakers 'to find a compromise on even the most controversial healthcare issues.' BIPARTISAN EFFORT
Charles Grassley said it "should encourage" lawmakers "to find a compromise on even the most controversial healthcare issues."
By Edwin Chen
Bloomberg / June 18, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Former Senate majority leaders, including Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican Robert Dole, are promoting a healthcare overhaul plan aimed at bridging differences between the two political parties and overcoming objections by doctors, hospitals, and insurers.

Daschle, Dole, and Republican Howard Baker released a bipartisan plan yesterday that would tax some employer-provided health insurance premiums, require individuals and large employers to buy health insurance, and create public insurance pools run by states instead of the federal government.

The proposals were put together over 15 months by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, which was started by Daschle, Dole, Baker, and former Democratic Senate leader George Mitchell. Congress is drafting a bill to revamp healthcare, which President Obama calls “the single most important thing we can do for America’s long-term fiscal health.’’

Dole said the United States has a rare opportunity this year to enact a comprehensive healthcare bill. “Let’s do it now,’’ he urged, saying it may be five years before lawmakers have a similar political opening.

That it took three former Senate leaders more than a year to reach a consensus underscores the challenge Congress faces in meeting Obama’s deadline for passing legislation by October. No fewer than five House and Senate committees are working out the details.

Max Baucus, Senate Finance Committee chairman, said yesterday that his panel may delay consideration of a healthcare bill until July as lawmakers work to bring the cost below $1 trillion and reach a bipartisan compromise.

Still, the Daschle-Dole-Baker proposal “shows that bipartisan agreement on a plan, with a way to pay for it, is doable,’’ said Drew Altman, president of the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, a healthcare policy group in Menlo Park, Calif.

Obama’s chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, called the plan “a serious and detailed proposal’’ that reinforces the president’s healthcare goals. “They have demonstrated what can be achieved with bipartisan effort,’’ Gibbs said.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said that while he doesn’t agree with all the plan’s recommendations, it “should encourage’’ lawmakers “to find a compromise on even the most controversial healthcare issues and demonstrate that bipartisan reform may be achievable.’’

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Senate leaders’ report “gives me great hope that people are rolling up their sleeves’’ to find ways to “really use this historic moment’’ to revamp the healthcare system. The nation should “finally tackle the challenges that we have put on the back burner for way too long,’’ Sebelius said at a Democratic Leadership Council policy forum in Washington.

While the plan seeks solutions to potential deal-breakers dividing Republicans and Democrats, Daschle, a former South Dakota senator, said in an interview that he doesn’t want to “overplay what it can do.’’

Daschle was Obama’s first choice as health secretary before withdrawing after questions about errors on his federal taxes. Dole, a former senator from Kansas, was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996. Baker, of Tennessee, was also White House chief of staff under President Reagan.

Healthcare expenditures now make up about 17 percent of the US gross domestic product and would reach 34 percent by 2040, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

In a bid to blunt Republican opposition to setting up a government-run insurance plan for those without coverage, Dole, Baker, and Daschle suggest giving states, instead of the federal government, the option of establishing insurance-purchasing pools. These pools would extend coverage to everyone regardless of their health status or ability to pay, Daschle said.

Under the group’s plan, taxes on employer-provided insurance premiums would vary according to regional differences in healthcare costs.

The tax on benefits would generally start when annual premiums exceed about $15,000, using as a model the benefits packages of federal employees.