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Bipartisan Health Bill Gets Cold Shoulder

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.

[IMGCAP(1)]“My reading of what is happening in the two committees is that in both cases we’re demonstrating that the present system is beyond jiggering,— Bennett said. “The present system isn’t working. … If we start with Bennett-Wyden as the template for the debate — I’m perfectly open to people saying, This part of it doesn’t work, that part of it doesn’t work, you have to change it.’ — but you see you’d be changing the new template instead of trying to jigger the current system.—

The problem is no one leading the efforts — not Obama nor Baucus nor Kennedy — wants to create a new system that might force some Americans to change their health insurance. Obama has repeatedly promised that whatever he signs would allow “Americans who like their doctors and their health care plans to keep them.—

“You know that mantra you hear Obama and everyone on earth saying — if you like what you have, you can keep it? Not under the Wyden plan,— said one senior Senate Democratic source. “All those happy Americans who like their doctor and their insurance plan? Not under the Wyden plan.—

Baucus said last week that he admires Wyden’s dedication to the subject but that he just can’t support the bill. Baucus spent last week working furiously to forge a compromise on his health care legislation, with stakeholders signaling they were getting closer to a deal.

“He’s never pushed it with me,— Baucus said. “I think the reason he hasn’t pushed it is because it has a fundamental flaw in that it would very significantly undermine the employer-based system. … I can’t thank him enough for all the work he has put into this legislation, but that particular provision, I just think, is one that has flaws.—

Another Democratic Senator, who asked to remain anonymous, said Democrats did not reject the Wyden-Bennett approach outright but took a serious look at how it could work — particularly since it appears to pay for itself and comes with willing Republicans. But ultimately, this Democrat said, key players in the debate decided it was unworkable because it would dismantle the current system.

However, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a co-sponsor of Wyden-Bennett, said Democrats who are driving the health care debate are unlikely to find true bipartisanship on the issue as long as they continue to try to push for either a government-run insurance plan or a co-op, which many Republicans believe is a back-door attempt at creating a public plan.

“There is bipartisanship out there, but there seems to be no bipartisanship for government-run health care,— Graham said. “There are some of us on the Republican side who understand that health care inflation is unsustainable … and that we’ll meet in the middle. I think as the government-run option collapses, there’ll be a vacuum and maybe that’s when we can start filling that vacuum.—

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