Three Ex-Senators Craft Health Care Plan

Posted June 17, 2009 at 6:04pm

Just as Senate bipartisanship over health care reform shows hints of fizzling, a collection of Senators-turned-lobbyists has come out with what they tout as a comprehensive and budget-neutral plan that both sides of the aisle could get behind.

Former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) on Wednesday unveiled a blueprint — one that includes a public plan compromise and a requirement that all Americans must purchase insurance — that they’d like to see their one-time colleagues take up.

They released their proposal under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center at Union Station’s Columbus Club.

Though all three men represent private-sector clients with a stake in the health care debate, they said they arrived at their ideas through negotiations with each other and based on the efforts of their two staff directors, Democrat Chris Jennings, a health care consultant who served in the Clinton administration, and Republican Mark McClellan, who served as administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services during the recent Bush administration.

“We’re not carrying anybody’s water,— said Baker, who is with the firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, adding that the trio did not consult with the American Medical Association, insurance companies or other interested stakeholders. “The three of us started from ground zero. It may not be right, but it’s ours.—

The plan, according to its backers, would ensure health care coverage for all U.S. citizens and legal residents. It would include both individual and employer requirements. The measure would not break the bank, its crafters say, because it also calls for savings with new health care information technologies and such things as a cap on the employer coverage income tax exclusion.

While those may be politically dicey ideas, perhaps the thorniest matter that Republicans and Democrats in Congress must resolve is whether a reform bill should include a public health care plan option.

The Daschle-Dole-Baker plan includes a public plan “compromise— that would give states the option to establish programs of their own, with technical assistance coming from the federal government. The plan would make the states compete on a “level playing field— with private industry, they said.

Daschle conceded that the compromise was not his first choice; he favors a more robust federal public plan. And he acknowledged that the overall plan will cause some pain across many industries. “There is no such thing as a painless way to do this,— said Daschle, who along with Dole works at the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird.

The plan would also include insurance market reforms and expanded Medicaid coverage.

McClellan said it would also reform Medicare by paying providers more, not less, when patients get healthier, and for teaming up with nurse practitioners, pharmacists and other health professionals.

“These people know how to get bipartisan agreement done,— Jennings said. He later noted that the effort, shared in advance with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and others who are tasked with working on health reform legislation, is generating interest on Capitol Hill.

“This is a constructive, bipartisan proposal and I commend the work of my former colleagues,— Baucus said in a statement released by his office. “The proposal not only helps identify areas of clear agreement, it addresses critical reforms, such as tackling cost concerns and ensuring quality coverage while holding insurance companies’ feet to the fire.

In his own statement, Grassley said, “While I don’t agree with every element of the proposal, I appreciate its contribution to the debate that’s under way on how to improve the health care system by offering coverage to everyone, fixing the delivery system, getting control of spiraling costs, and making sure reforms are offset and don’t add to the federal budget deficit.—

Health insurance companies, too, reacted positively to the general idea of bipartisanship.

“It’s a very thoughtful contribution to the health care reform discussion,— said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Insurance companies have said they oppose the idea of a public plan, but Zirkelbach said that if Congress were to enact the insurance reforms outlined in the former Senators’ proposal, “then a government-run plan would not be necessary.—

Though the plan calls for a mandate for employers to cover their workers — or pay into a pool system — Jennings said it would exempt companies with less than $1 million in annual revenue. It also calls for tax incentives for small businesses that offer coverage. “This is a compromise,— he said.

Baker, Dole and Daschle acknowledged that they are no longer in the Senate and that they are providing ideas, not a legislative package, though Dole did once refer to the plan as “our bill.— (Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell [D-Maine], who is now serving as the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, was also involved in the effort.)

“We have no legislative-writing authority,— Baker said, adding that it’s something of an advantage. “It frees us.—

Dole said that working for nearly two years on the 60-plus-page document gave the former leaders a sense of accomplishment and revived old memories of working under the Dome.

“We kind of enjoyed it — I can’t recall which parts,— he joked. He added that all three hoped health care reform could be done on a bipartisan basis and soon because next year will be an election year when members of the two parties are even less likely to agree.