WASHINGTON -- Representative Henry Waxman, whose Energy and Commerce Committee has primary jurisdiction over healthcare in the House, today underlined his commitment to passage this year of a major healthcare bill that would extend coverage to all 47 million Americans without insurance.
Waxman, speaking at a luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel, where the liberal group Families USA is holding a conference on health reform, dismissed recent rumbles that a swelling deficit, partisanship and delay could sap political momentum for a bill.
"This is the time," he said. "This is the year."
The Senate has so far taken the lead in the healthcare discussion; Senators Max Baucus and Edward M. Kennedy have been working for the better part of a year on policy options, quietly meeting with an array of business, insurance, medicial and consumer groups in hopes of finding consensus on volatile issues.
Today Waxman weighed on a couple of those.
He said it was "critically important" to offer a public insurance plan option, like Medicare, to those without insurance. This is anathema to the insurance industry, which believes private insurers cannot fairly compete with a public plan that can unilaterally decide what it pays doctors and does not have to turn a profit. Waxman said "creative tension" between the public and private realms could benefit both.
Waxman said he could support requiring everyone to buy insurance -- something that Baucus backs but President Obama opposed in his campaign -- as long as people can buy insurance that is truly affordable. The question of what "affordable" means is likely to be sticky, however, particularly if the government mandates generous insurance plans and people who now consider themselves insured have to upgrade what they've got. He also promised "aggressive regulations and oversight" of the insurance industry, saying "strong rating and underwriting rules and effective regulatory structures" would be necessary.
Waxman declined to comment as he left the luncheon on whether he thought the tax exemption for employer-sponsored insurance should be modified. Obama campaigned strongly against his Republican rival John McCain's plan to get rid of the provision that excludes health benefits from the income tax, but many leading Democrats, including Baucus, think it must be considered as a way to make the system more aggressive and to help pay the cost of covering the uninsured.
He also said he would advance legislation requiring the FDA to regulate tobacco products "in a matter of weeks" and a bill on embryonic stem cell research to move "very fast."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.