Tuesday, June 9, 2009

This week in health care reform

Single-payer gets a hearing

Tomorrow morning the House Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is holding a hearing to examine the single-payer health care option.

Single-payer advocates across the country are thrilled, because tomorrow’s hearing marks the first time Congress has opened the door and invited them to officially take part in the health care reform discussion.

Anyone who has followed this raging debate over the past couple months knows that Montana’s Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has thus far refused to consider single-payer or even let single-payer advocates take part in Senate hearings.

Last month Baucus had 13 protesters arrested for disrupting two committee hearings and demanding that Baucus include single-payer in the discussion.

That incident, and Baucus' refusal to include single-payer, sparked protests across Montana last week:

Are Baucus and Obama parting ways on the "public option"?

In a letter sent to Baucus and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy last week, Obama said he wants any bill that reaches his desk to include a strong public option. Baucus has previously said he supports the idea of a public option, in which the federal government would manage a health insurance plan that would compete alongside private insurance companies. But Baucus has also insisted that any bill that makes it out of the Senate Finance Committee has to be a "bi-partisan" bill. So far, conservatives in Congress are lining up to oppose that idea.

Now, according to this New York Times interview with Baucus and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the finance committee, Baucus appears to be backing off his support of a public plan. Here's what he had to say about it (it's at the 6:20 mark in the video):

"Now some suggest that maybe this so-called public option is necessary to keep insurance companies feet to the fire. That's an argument that we hear around here. My point is that there is less need for that...if we really do a good job reforming the health insurance industry."

Less need for public option? Is that Obama's position? Baucus should know what's on Obama's mind, because after all Baucus’ former chief of staff, Jim Messina, is now Obama's deputy chief of staff. And as New York Times Magazine Washington correspondent Matt Bai pointed out on the News Hour last night, the relationship between Baucus, Messina and Obama is not “incidental," especially when it comes to health care reform.

“Jim Messina is the deputy chief of staff in the White House. He's also not just a former chief of staff for Senator Baucus. Senator Baucus at one point has said this is like another son to him.

And so that's been, I think, critical, because, you know, the president and Senator Baucus do not have a strong relationship. They didn't know each other well in the Senate. But they've put a lot of effort into building that relationship in the last couple months, and a key part of that is him being able to call his former confidante and either vent, or get something across, or hear what's being thought on the other side.”

So is Baucus now indicating a split with the president, or is Obama feigning support for a public plan?

What happened to support for single-payer?

At one time, Obama was a "proponent of a single-payer universal health care program." At least that's what he told the crowd at a 2003 AFL-CIO convention when he was running for the U.S. Senate:

If you watch the video all the way through, you'll note that Obama tells the crowd that "we may not get there immediately, because first we have to take back the White House, and we've got to take back the Senate."

White House: Check.
Senate: Check.
Congress: Check.

So why is Obama, via Max Baucus, now running from an idea he once supported? Democrats control Washington, and if Al Franken is declared in the winner in the still-as-yet-to-be-decided Minnesota Senate Race, Obama—along with the help of two Democrat-leaning independents—will have a veto-proof majority in the Senate.

Hypothetically, if Congress were to somehow pass a single-payer bill, does anyone believe that Obama wouldn't sign it? I highly doubt that Obama would use his veto pen for the first time on a piece of legislation that he has vocally supported in the past, and one that, if you believe the polls (and here, and here, and here), is supported by the majority of Americans.

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