Senate Finance Committee Bill Needs Public Option

By Jan Erickson, Director of Programs, NOW Foundation

The worst of five congressional committees’ health care reform efforts is the Senate Finance Committee bill, which was finally approved on Tuesday by a slimly bipartisan vote of 14-9. Its major defect relates to the lack of a public, not-for-profit health insurance option, but there is plenty else wrong with it. Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) opposes the public option because, as he said, there aren’t 60 votes for one. In our view, that’s not a legitimate reason to oppose a plan that makes good sense and will help control costs, that a majority of voters want, and that an overwhelming percentage of physicians support. The public option should have been included.

The Senate Finance Committee action is emblematic of our dysfunctional democracy, where money and corporate interests call the shots in Congress. Millions are being spent every day in misinforming and inflaming the public, while pressuring members of Congress to produce a bill that maintains the status quo in huge profits.

As NOW noted several weeks ago, this bill was written by the profit-driven health industry and has many provisions that will greatly benefit private insurance companies and big business — not the least of which is the provision that lets employers off the hook for providing health insurance to employees. Middle-aged persons will be charged unaffordable rates at four times what young persons are charged, making health insurance unaffordable to millions of older women. Other provisions require that everyone have insurance or face financial penalties and yet do very little to assure that costs for insurance, medical services and suppliers do not continue to rise into the stratosphere.

Even though insurance lobbyists had considerable influence over this bill, a last minute attack by the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans charged that premiums would rise 111 percent over the next 10 years if the Senate Finance Committee bill were adopted! The message to all was that the insurance industry will get their profits one way or another, if they can’t stop reform legislation.

The Senate Finance Committee version will be merged with a much more progressive bill from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is similar to the House tri-committee legislation. Let’s hope that the good guys (and gals, thanks Sen. Olympia Snowe!) win this time — and that the Senate produces a bill that gives us a real break from escalating health insurance costs, from the more than 600,000 bankruptcies filed each year because of medical bills, and which stops the tragic deaths of 44,000 persons annually who die because they have no health insurance.

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