Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said definitively Monday he will release his chairman's mark of healthcare overhaul legislation Wednesday, backing off his claim earlier in the day that today was the most probable day for the long-awaited unveiling.
Baucus kicked staff out of the room for about half an hour Monday to gauge support of Republicans who are part of the group of six negotiating a bipartisan overhaul bill, but coveted GOP support is unclear.
"I think there will be Republicans" who support the bill, Baucus said. "I'm not saying it's going to be on the mark. But I'm saying by the time we complete markup, there will be Republicans that will vote for it." Baucus said the markup will begin a week from today.
Baucus and his group of five other senators have a list of about 12 to 15 member concerns with the bill that they need to work to clear up, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said Monday. Baucus met with Finance Committee Democrats Monday evening to discuss their issues.
"The flashpoint is all about affordability," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said as he left the meeting.
Some Democrats are troubled with the benchmarks set for tax credits meant to help people to afford health insurance. The tax credits, under a draft proposal Baucus released more than a week ago, kick in on a sliding scale basis up to those earning 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Those whose earnings are at the highest levels would only receive a credit if they spend more than 13 percent of their income on insurance, falling to 3 percent for those at the federal poverty level.
"Additional steps have to be taken to make health care more affordable," Wyden said, adding that he would like 9 percent to be the highest percent of income spent on healthcare to deem it affordable.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also said he has concerns with the fees Baucus' proposal would impose on some sectors of the healthcare industry. He did not specify which industries -- pharmaceutical, medical device, health insurance or clinical labs -- he was most concerned with.
Despite some of the gripes, none of the Democrats were negative about prospects for a bill.
"I didn't feel this way a week ago, but I feel very optimistic that we'll get more than 60 votes," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Monday going into the Finance Democrats' meeting with Baucus. Nelson attributed his newfound optimism to President Obama's healthcare speech to Congress on Wednesday.
Asked whether he would support Baucus' mark, Kerry replied, "It's not going to be the bill that we're going to vote on, because we are going to amend, we are going to have a tug of war still."
One of the thornier issues remaining to be worked out with Republicans is abortion and language that would prohibit the use of federal funds for them. Baucus said Monday the group of six negotiators is looking at an amendment adopted by the House that would explicitly prohibit using federal dollars to fund abortions.
The House bill includes a public plan that would be removed in favor of a co-op in Baucus' mark. In the House bill, if the public plan covers abortions, money from premiums must be used to pay for them.
The House bill stipulates that in the proposed insurance exchange, at least one plan that covers abortion must be available, and at least one plan that does not cover abortion must be available. It also requires that private companies cannot be required to either cover or restrict coverage of abortion services.
House Republicans felt the compromise was weak.
The Senate negotiators also will talk with governors later today, which is part of the reason for the mark coming out Wednesday instead of today, to assuage fears that their already stretched budgets will not be able to handle the Medicaid expansion that will be part of the overhaul. Baucus was not specific but said the senators are "pretty satisfied" with the expansion.
This article appears in the September 19, 2009, edition of NJ Daily.