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Bipartisan Health Bill Gets Cold Shoulder

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (shown here) continue to plow ahead on a health reform package, turning a blind eye to a long-standing bipartisan measure by Sens. Ron Wyden and Bob Bennett.

With President Barack Obama and lawmakers in both parties continuing to struggle for a bipartisan health care reform deal, sweeping legislation — pushed by a bipartisan Senate duo — that would fundamentally restructure the way Americans get their health insurance has been gathering dust.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) have 11 other co-sponsors already — six Democrats, one Independent and four Republicans — on their bill, which is aimed at creating more competition in the insurance market and lowering costs by eliminating employer-provided health care coverage. Instead, consumers would get pay raises equal to their current health benefits and buy insurance on the open market.

Bennett said he believes the bill has lacked traction with Senate leaders because neither he nor Wyden is in a position to place it at the center of the debate.

“Hell has no fury like a committee chairman whose jurisdiction has been challenged. And neither Sen. Wyden nor I is a committee chairman,” Bennett said. “I think that’s part of it.”

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been trying to build consensus around the idea of creating a nonprofit health insurance cooperative to compete with private health care companies, while Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his deputy, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), have been trying to satisfy Obama’s desire to create a government-run health insurance option.

Wyden said there’s been renewed interest in his bill from other Senators given the estimated price tags associated with those emerging Senate plans, which originally topped $1 trillion.

“I’ve had a whole host of Senators come up to me in just the last few days since there’s been sticker shock — I mean, nobody expected those huge scores — and said, ‘Look, I’m interested in talking to you about [your bill],’” Wyden said last week. “So, I feel like we’re very much in this debate.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined in 2008 that the Wyden-Bennett bill would be deficit-neutral in its first year and may actually generate revenue in future years. Baucus announced last week that his plan would cost less than $1 trillion and be fully offset by tax increases and spending reductions elsewhere.

Bennett said both Baucus’ and Kennedy’s efforts to revamp health care were flawed because they insist on maintaining the employer-based system.

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