Thursday, July 30, 2009

Blue Dogs Delay, Water Down House Health Care Bill

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By Jeff Muskus

Conservative Blue Dog Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are celebrating their success in delaying a full floor vote on health care legislation past the August recess and in slightly weakening two key provisions during their negotiations with committee Chairman Henry Waxman.

"We have successfully pushed a floor vote to September," Mike Ross (D-Ark.) told reporters Wednesday afternoon. "The American people want us to slow down, and that's what we're doing here."

The Blue Dogs wrestled some concessions out of Waxman (D-Calif.), particularly related to a public health care option and employer mandates. The committee's current version of the public option now more closely resembles that of the health committee in the Senate.

For instance, rather than linking the public option to the rates enjoyed by Medicare, the new language would require a separate agreement without Medicare's bargaining power, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius would be responsible for negotiating deals with service providers from day one of the public plan's existence, rather than year three. States can also set up co-op insurance plans in addition to the public option, but not in its stead.

"The public option must go out and negotiate with providers, just like private health insurance companies do," Ross said. "It's strictly optional. It won't be mandated on anyone. It will not be based on Medicare rates."

Under the terms of the compromise, close to 86 percent of small businesses -- those with an annual payroll of $500,000 or less -- will be exempt from the mandate to provide employees with health insurance, Ross said, although the Blue Dogs weren't alone in pushing for that change. Those with an annual payroll between $500,000 and $750,000 must provide graduated partial assistance.

"That's as close as you can get to totally removing the mandate without removing it," Ross said. "Quite frankly, once you get up to three-quarter million a year in annual payroll, as a former small business owner myself, most of them are already providing health insurance, and if they're not, they should."

Under the original draft legislation, Ross said, barely one-fifth the number of businesses would have been exempted.

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