Sen. Baucus's Health-Care Bill Would Ease Financial Burden on Middle Class

By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Seeking to lock down votes before Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Max Baucus began reworking his health-care overhaul to ease the financial burden on middle-class Americans who would be required for the first time to have health insurance.

All of his changes, though, would add billions to the cost of a bill whose chief accomplishment was its relative austerity.

Baucus (Mont.) came under fire last week from fellow Democrats and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), the only Republican still at the negotiating table, for a mandate that people buy health coverage, at a price they may not be able to afford.

To address that concern, Baucus said Monday that his revised bill would offer more generous subsidies to low- and middle-income people to buy coverage through a network of private insurance exchanges. He also said he may cut the maximum penalty facing middle-class families who do not buy insurance.

Baucus said he is considering substantial changes to one of his primary sources of funding: a proposed tax on high-cost insurance policies. Some Democrats complained that the tax would strike hardest at residents of expensive urban areas and those with risky jobs, such as coal miners, firefighters and other public safety workers.

In a meeting Monday night with Finance Committee Democrats, Baucus cautioned that lawmakers may have to find additional revenue sources or cost savings, depending on how drastically they seek to change the bill. "The main discussion was, 'Okay, how do we make insurance affordable for people? Because we've got to make insurance affordable.' But the next question was, 'How do you pay for it?' " Baucus said.

One option Democrats were discussing was to expand Medicaid as a potentially less expensive way to cover low-income people.

The last-minute maneuvering came as Baucus prepared to open a week-long debate on health care in his committee, the last of five congressional panels to take up President Obama's signature domestic initiative. Lawmakers have proposed 564 amendments to Baucus's measure, and a vote on the $774 billion plan is not expected before Friday at the earliest.

The bill would expand health coverage to millions without adding to federal budget deficits, and despite criticism of the measure from both parties, it has attracted the support of more moderate Democrats than any other proposal.

After a year-long effort to build a bipartisan consensus around the plan, Baucus has so far been unable to persuade any Republicans to sign on, and fellow Democrats have accused him of wasting his time courting conservative Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

The chairman said, though, that he would change nothing about the arduous process, and he continued to work Monday night toward incorporating Democratic and Republican amendments into the bill.

"I felt from the get-go that bipartisan was better than not," Baucus said in an interview. "It's more durable. It's more sustainable."

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