What's Wrong With the Finance Committee Bill? An Interview With Sen. Ron Wyden.
Sen. Ron Wyden is another Finance Committee Democrat unhappy with the Baucus's initial proposal. Wyden's Healthy Americans Act, co-sponsored with Sen. Bob Bennett, is widely regarded as a good piece of legislation that's simply too radical for the current Congress. But it's given him enough credibility in the debate that on Wednesday, he was one of two Democrats Barack Obama invited to the White House to discuss health care. Wyden has put his weight behind "The Free Choice" proposal (pdf), which would amend Baucus's bill to give all Americans access to the Health Insurance Exchanges. I spoke with him Thursday afternoon.
You and Sen. Bob Bennett met with the president on Wednesday. How did that go?
The President really likes Bob Bennett. And vice versa. At one point, the two were kicking around Utah politics, and I just offered to let them put together a deal of their own and introduce it into the Senate Finance Committee. The president turned to me and said, “I like you, too!” It was very funny.
I spent my time talking about the point Obama uses at every rally. I said, “Mr. President, I memorized it verbatim. You say ‘everyone should get the same deal as members of Congress.’ ” But you take the text of these bills, and not only are you not getting the same deal as members of Congress, who get a dozen or more choices in the D.C. area, but people aren’t going to get any choice at all. It’ll be tethered to a policy that many people might think is pretty crummy. Some of those policies will be high-deductible, going up 10 or 12 percent a year. And people are going to think that’s pretty crummy.
What’s the mood among Finance Committee Democrats right now?
I think that in the Senate, the flashpoint has become affordability. And the flip side of affordability is choice. If you have a policy you’re having problems affording now, and some government official says you need to keep it, that’s not going to make you very happy. Plus, you don’t have a chance to make the system better, not just for yourself, but for everyone else, by making choices and creating competition among insurers.
As for the people who don’t have coverage and are making $65,000, those people look at Washington and see us saying you’ll have to pay 13 percent of your income, and then we’re going to clobber you with all these co-pays and deductibles, and some government official comes and says, ‘We’ll give you an exemption’? No middle-class people will be attending rallies holding signs saying “thank you for my exemption!”
You’re sort of dancing around your Free Choice Act here, so let’s talk about it. Do you have any co-sponsors?
We’ve not been doing that yet. At every stage, you’re trying to come up with a strategy for finance and then a strategy for the floor. This is the period we felt we’d have the most leverage. If you’re not a committee chair, you’re always looking for the point of maximal leverage. But we now have a situation where in both the White House and the committee, people are starting to say we need to assemble the votes to move the legislation out of committee and off the floor. As you know, we’ve changed strategy even in the last 10 days. As you know, for many months, Sen. Bennett and I waited quietly in the Senate, and now we’re taking a different approach, making sure people understand what we’re trying to do.
Let me ask you about some of the concerns people have on this bill. One is that it will hasten the decline of the employer-based system. Young workers will leave quickly for cheap, catastrophic plans on the exchange. Workplaces will be left with older, sicker workers, and they won’t be able to continue offering health-care insurance.
That just doesn’t make sense, either from an economic standpoint or the nature of American life. First, companies will continue to see good benefits as a recruitment tool. It remains a primary way to attract young, talented workers. Second, as we look at this in terms of who would leave, I don’t get the sense that young, healthy workers will be the first to traipse off. Are they really going to be the ones to fill out the forms and contact the exchanges and all that? I think the most likely to go shopping are middle-class people who are pinched right now. We’ve also put into the bill safety valves for any worst-case scenario: after-the-fact risk adjustment that will review who stayed and who left and make adjustments based on that fact.
If what we’re saying is that we can’t find a sweet spot between blowing everything up in 15 minutes and telling people that you can’t improve your situation and have more choices, we’re not doing our job. And I think this is that sweet spot.
Another argument I’ve heard is that this will change an employer’s ability to bargain for insurance. Right now, they go to an insurer and say, “I’ve got 500 employees, what can you give me for that price?” But if 125 of those employees could leave, or 300 could leave, that might change their ability to secure and protect a deal.
Imagine that Ezra Electronics has been working with a particular insurer for six or seven years. Ezra Electronics gets more leverage. Under this bill, Ezra Electronics can get out and go to the exchange unless the insurer gives him a better deal. And so can individuals. Free choice means additional options for employers and employees. If your insurance policy knows you can leave, they will work harder to keep you.
Let’s put free choice aside for a second. Is the affordability sufficient?
The bill, as it’s written today, is going to make it very hard for a United States Senator to go home, look middle-class people in the eye, and say I helped you get health security. Unemployment rate in Oregon right now is 12.2 percent. I don’t think the legislation, as written, is going to meet the middle-class person’s test of health security. I told the president of the United States that I’m going to do everything I can to fix this bill.
How about the “free rider” provision?
I think it’s anti-hiring low-income workers. Changing it is extraordinarily important. We’re in discussions with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities about how to do it.
Final question: If not a word of the bill changed, could you vote for it?
As it is currently written, the legislation doesn’t fit my definition of what’s needed for the middle class.
Photo credit: By Susan Walsh – Associated Press
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