ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf reports: After what seemed like months of backroom meetings and little public activity, the battle over health care is officially on. And its gone from quiet and bipartisan to dug-in and rancorous in no time.
Democrats in the HELP committee posted their health care proposal online. Details are sketchy at this point as no one as had time to read the 615-page “Affordable Health Choices Act.”But the text is just a starting point. They will add the public -- Republicans call it a government-run -- option and the employer mandate (forcing companies to provide health coverage or pay a tax) at a markup next Tuesday. Page 110 of the bill includes sections for an “Shared Responsibility of Employers” and a “Public Health Insurance Option” but specifics are punted with the line: “Policy under discussion.”What is in Democrats’ draft is a included is a clause mandating what Democrats call “individual responsibility” for healthcare that will essentially fine Americans who do not have health insurance once the bill is enacted and subsidies for people who can’t afford health insurance. The level of the subsidy will be up for debate, but the current version of the bill includes some sort up subsidy up to 500 percent of the poverty level - $110,000.The HELP Committee version of healthcare reform will ultimately be merged with a proposal from the Finance Committee, set to be released next week, that will also tackle the sticky issue of how to pay for universal health care reform.
“What are we going to do? We're going to do our very best to fix what's broken and protect what works. Like most Americans, we believe there needs to be a choice and competition in health insurance. If you look the coverage you have, you should be able to keep it. We must reform health care because, under the status quo, Americans are paying much more than they should to stay healthy or care for a loved one,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after meeting this afternoon with other Democrats.
He met complaints from Republicans that they have been cut out of the process: “From the start, we've reached out to Republicans, and they know we would rather write this bill with them than without them. That's why Senator Dodd is working with his counterparts on the Health Committee and has left open key parts of the health bill in order to get Republican input,” Reid said.
Most Republicans are hewing to a set of talking points have already gelled into: “Rationing” and “government plan” and equating the government bailouts of the auto and banking industries with a public health insurance option.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., today on-camera called the earlier auto and banking bailouts.
“I think the American people are starting to connect the dots and see these as sort of gateway drugs to the government takeover of health care. And there is, I think, growing concern around the country about the way in which and the speed with which the government is intervening in our economy and the impact that it's having and the amount of spending and borrowing here in Washington that -- that it necessitates.”
He said Democrats’ plan to require everyone to have health care and provide a low-cost government option would actually lead to less health care.
Making health care accessible, Thune said, “does not include a government takeover of our health care system in this country that would, in the end, drive up costs and be -- and lead to rationing, which would make health care less accessible to people across this country.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., made this analogy, arguing that any insurance option run by the government would kill the private market:
“Those are two words we hear a lot today,” Alexander said. "Washington takeover." In the case of health care, it's like putting an elephant in a room with some mice and say, "OK, fellows, compete." After a while, the elephant has taken over the room, and your only choice is the elephant.”
The Republicans say they’ve been cut out of the process and will fight against any sort of public health insurance option.
“The best way to go forward on a bipartisan basis would be to take out the government plan, take out any effort to ration health care, and then let's craft a bill based upon a consideration of an acceptable array of alternatives, all of which would arguably improve the current system,” said the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“So I think the sooner we can get the government plan off the table, the better, in terms of getting an actual result for the American people,” he said.
The American people, said Sen. Jon Kyl are, “concerned about the cost. They're concerned about the government takeover, just as they are with other aspects of our economy. And I suspect, at the end of the day, most of all, they're concerned about the potential for rationing of their family's health care.”
The White House Health Czar Nancy Ann DeParle met today with the one Republican who appears open to a public plan, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. In a paper statement released after the meeting, Snowe said that she wants to make sure there is a good open debate, but ultimately, “If the private plans fail, Senator Snowe said a public option should then be available from day one.
Meanwhile, some Democrats remain squeamish with the idea of public healthcare.
Sen. Mary Landrieu’s spokesman sought to clarify a report that she would oppose any public plan.
“Senator Landrieu is committed to reforming the health care system and ensuring that all Americans are covered. She is reviewing all of the reform proposals. Senator Landrieu does not believe that health care reform starts with a public option. However, she is open to compromise in a comprehensive legislative package, and is focused on appropriate consumer protection and patient-centered care,” said her spokesman, Aaron Saunders in a paper statement.