KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations.

Sen. Hatch Leaves Bipartisan Negotiations, August Deadline Unlikely

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, removes himself from Sen. Max Baucus's bipartisan health reform talks in the Senate Finance Committee, leaving six centrist senators in what used to be called "the coalition of the willing."  And, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says President Barack Obama's August deadline is unworkable.

"Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a veteran of bipartisan health care efforts, acknowledged Wednesday that he has removed himself from the bipartisan health care negotiations going on in the Senate Finance Committee, saying he was unhappy with the direction of the talks and didn't believe he would be able to support the final deal," Roll Call reports. In an interview, Hatch said "I really commend them for the effort. What I don't want to do is mislead people by continuing to be in the meetings when I disagree with much of the direction I feel they have to go." He "listed a range of policy disagreements with the decisions being made by the bipartisan group," including the total cost of the bill, an employer mandate and an extensive Medicaid expansion.

On the public option, Roll Call adds: "the bipartisan negotiators on Finance have indicated they're going to bridge the partisan divide on this issue by going with Conrad's proposal for a nonprofit medical cooperative. But Hatch said key Democrats on Finance, particularly Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), would never allow it... Hatch said he doubts the bipartisan Finance negotiators will reach a deal in time to begin and complete a bill markup before the August recess, which begins Aug. 7. Baucus said he doesn't view Hatch's departure from the talks as significant, arguing he was always a 'tentative' member of the group and not as committed as [Mike] Enzi, [Charles] Grassley and [Olympia] Snowe… Hatch, who is the No. 2 Republican on Finance and is set to become ranking member next year, said he 'suspects' the final deal reached by the gang of six will be broadly rejected by the Republican Conference on policy grounds" (Drucker, 7/23).

In a separate article, Roll Call reports that "Senate Democrats are increasingly frustrated by the secrecy and duration of Finance Chairman Max Baucus' (D-Mont.) bipartisan talks on health care reform, with some saying it could undermine Democratic support for the bill. Democrats both on and off the Finance Committee said the briefings they get about the six negotiators' progress are too vague. Plus, they say, without a bill in hand, they cannot defend or sell the package to a wary media and public… Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned Baucus two weeks ago that he risked alienating Democrats with his approach to the bill. In that meeting, Reid told Baucus to expand his focus to include more Democrats (Pierce and Drucker, 7/23).

Politico reports that "President Barack Obama's goal for action on health care reform before the August recess suffered what appeared to be a fatal blow when Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin declared the deadline unworkable in the Senate… But with Durbin's comments putting an end to Obama's August deadline, Democrats in both chambers are moving toward a new target for victory: a bipartisan bill in the Senate Finance Committee and a vote before the House Energy and Commerce panel. 

"In the Senate, the timeline makes it almost impossible to hold a markup, merge the bill with one approved by the health committee and schedule a floor vote - unless the recess was significantly delayed or a confirmation vote on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was pushed back to September. The new Democratic thinking is that Obama can legitimately claim progress if two Senate committees and three in the House approve bills by the August break. But even this goal is still not a foregone conclusion, as lawmakers continue to grapple over major issues." Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says he thinks moving the bill out of the Finance Committee is "realistic" (Brown and O'Connor, 7/22).

Republicans also say more time is needed to craft a health care bill. "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he hopes to see a bill that improves the U.S. health care system passed by the end of the year, but that lawmakers must take the time to craft a plan that won't increase the federal debt or hurt small businesses," NPR reports (Tedford, 7/22).

Meanwhile, "Senate Democrats are looking at new ways to tax some employer-provided health benefits, and their ideas got a qualified endorsement from President Barack Obama Wednesday," The Wall Street Journal reports. "The latest version of the idea in Congress, according to Senate officials, would impose the tax not on the people who enjoy "gold-plated" health-insurance plans, but on insurers or the employers who provide such packages. Congress might define a gold-plated plan as any plan that exceeds a certain annual cap in premium value. Mr. Obama suggested that no current plans would be subject to tax, only plans that rise above a cap in the future."

"A recent analysis by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that researches social and economic problems, looked at the impact of imposing the tax directly on workers. It estimated that imposing the tax on the top 25% of plans would hit about half of middle-income households, and roughly two-thirds of higher-income households. Some could pay thousands of dollars a year more in taxes depending on how they're structured…. If the tax were imposed on insurers or employers that provide benefits, employees might escape a hit, at least for a while." And "Senate tax writers are considering ways to avoid imposing the tax for public-sector employees, who constitute a large segment of union members" (McKinnon, 7/23).

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