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Ron Wyden vs. the Democrats

M1X00233_9.JPGYesterday, the Democratic Senate leadership sent out its daily talking points to its members' offices. Among them was the relatively anodyne argument that, "Under our [health-care reform] plan, if you like what you have you can keep it, but if you don’t there will be affordable choices for you that can’t be taken away."

The only problem with this talking point: It isn't true. Sen. Ron Wyden's communications director, Jennifer Hoelzer, has spent the past few months fighting for her boss's amendment that would make it true, and she blasted a quick fact-check to 490 addresses on the "reply all":

I just wanted to flag for colleagues that their bosses should be careful using the talking point that under the Dem bill, Americans who don’t like the coverage they have, will be able to choose something else.

As CBO Director Elmendorf indicated last week, under the current legislation, seven years after implementation, more than 90 percent of Americans will remain barred from shopping for insurance in the exchange. This means that not only will MOST Americans be stuck with the coverage they have – whether they like it or not – if reform establishes a public option, more than 90 percent of Americans won’t be able to choose it. As many of you know, this is why Senator Wyden has been fighting so hard to get his Free Choice proposal into the bill, so that we can tell our constituents that if you don’t like the coverage they have, they can choose something better. But right now, that’s not the case.

Let me know if you have any questions.
Jen

As you might expect, the Senate Democratic leadership was not too pleased with Hoelzer's decision to press "send." But this is further evidence of the increasingly interesting space that Wyden's office is carving out for itself. There are a lot offices on the Hill that annoy the leadership because they are insufficiently loyal to the party, or because they eagerly cultivate a reputation for centrism. But so long as that heterodoxy comes from a vulnerable senator, it's considered part of the cost of a doing business. A guy like Ben Nelson is protected because everyone agrees that if Nebraska weren't represented by a centrist Democrat, it would be represented by a conservative Republican, and that would make life harder overall. If he has to be seen as anti-liberal crusader to keep his seat, then so be it.

Wyden, however, is a liberal in a safe seat. And he's not even that liberal. By all rights, he shouldn't be causing anyone any headaches. But he's beginning to fashion a reputation for himself not as a crusader against liberal policies, but against bad policy compromises. That makes everyone's life more difficult, because the Senate pretty much runs on bad policy compromises, and the people making those compromises prefer it if they're not pointed out. Indeed, as the talking points show, they sometimes try and pretend those compromises were never made at all. But Wyden keeps pointing them out, and loudly. And as he develops a reputation for being an independent policy voice, he's becoming more popular with the media, which is further amplifying his criticisms. It's an important role for somebody to be playing, but I imagine Wyden is going to start getting yelled at a whole lot.

Photo credit: Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 20, 2009; 11:37 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

I am not sure that Wyden is going to get yelled at. Senator Landrieu was just on MSNBC stating that she totally supports Wyden's Free Choice Act, she wants to nationalize the exchanges, and she supports getting rid of the anti-trust exemption.

She just doesn't want a "national" public option. By her saying "national", I suspect if she was pushed she would accept the Opt-in or possibly even the Opt-op public option.

Posted by: maritza1 | October 20, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

When the liberal party can't even bring itself to allow any citizen to enroll in a public plan if he is being screwed by private insurance, then we know that our system of government and our politics is indeed totally broken and needs to be scrapped completely. Constitutional convention anyone?

Posted by: redwards95 | October 20, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

"Senator Landrieu was just on MSNBC stating that she totally supports Wyden's Free Choice Act, she wants to nationalize the exchanges, and she supports getting rid of the anti-trust exemption."

Ezra's right that the Senate does normally lead to bad policy compromises, but its worth noting that Landrieu is undoubtedly promoting a better policy above than any of the five plans that have been passed.

Posted by: wisewon | October 20, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

The Senate leadership is playing a potentially dangerous game here. After all the sturm und drang about health care reform, and after making promises like this one, it turns out that not only will 90% of Americans not be affected at all but that in fact they will be prevented from making a change that they were promised they would be able to make . . . well, what then? How does one keep a Democratic congress after telling a lie that public, that egregious and that high profile?

The leadership is trying to build short term pressure to pass a bill. The price they are willing to pay is significant risk of a major long term backlash. That seems to me extremely ill advised.

Posted by: pj_camp | October 20, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Kudos Ezra. Good stuff. I'm not sure about the outcome though.

pj raises the most salient point: what would be the effect of passing legislation that excludes most Democrats from joining a public option? Not good.

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 20, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Ron Wyden's amendment is popular with insurers because it could break up the group market, which is less profitable for them, and push more people onto the individual market, which is much more profitable for them and a place where it is easier for them to deny claims and dump people (they do most of the denying claims on the individual market customers). It is popular with liberals because they want everyone to be able to buy into the public option. I am only in favor of it if there is a nationally available public option. Otherwise it is a scam for the insurers to break up the groups--just when moving people into larger risk pools is what is essential for lower premiums.

Anyway, that is why Ron Wyden is called "the insurance companies' best friend". They love the idea of getting a bunch of government subsidies to take people onto their overpriced and crooked individual market.

Posted by: evangeline135 | October 20, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think Wyden’s staff made an important point and it’s a lesson that most of us learned early on in life--tell the truth. If Senators want to tell their constituents that they will have “affordable choices” than they should back it up with their vote.

According to the CBO the leadership's talking point isn’t true. I don’t know much about Wyden’s proposal so I can’t comment it would indeed provide “affordable choices”. However I do know that most of us want a representative to tell us the truth, not what a pollster says we want to hear.

Posted by: KCHay | October 20, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

evangeline above doesn't seem to know what she's talking about. Wyden's amendment wouldn't push anyone onto the individual market, it would allow them into the exchange (which is the only way to access the public option).

I'm an Oregon voter and have been exceedingly proud to have Mr. Wyden as a Senator this year. Thank God somebody is looking at what will actually WORK instead of just which way the wind is blowing that day.

Posted by: bridgietherease | October 20, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Ron Wyden's amendment is popular with insurers because it could break up the group market, which is less profitable for them, and push more people onto the individual market, which is much more profitable for them and a place where it is easier for them to deny claims and dump people (they do most of the denying claims on the individual market customers). It is popular with liberals because they want everyone to be able to buy into the public option. I am only in favor of it if there is a nationally available public option. Otherwise it is a scam for the insurers to break up the groups--just when moving people into larger risk pools is what is essential for lower premiums.

Anyway, that is why Ron Wyden is called "the insurance companies' best friend". They love the idea of getting a bunch of government subsidies to take people onto their overpriced and crooked individual market.

Posted by: evangeline135 | October 20, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

evangeline135,

its scary how little you know. I'd love a little proof to that fact. you know the one where the individual market is more profitable than the group market? Ever worked at an insurer? Exactly what are your qualifications to make such an outlandish statement???

Bridgietherease is right.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 20, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Individual market policies are more profitable because: they can restrict the policies to only healthy people (and they do), they can dump people who get sick (and they do), they can deny more claims (with no group or union to protect you), and they can raise rates more (and do).

Bridgietherease: It does break up the group markets, because young healthy people who think they will never get really sick can leave the group and get a cheaper, worthless policy tailored to them on the private market. The fact that it doesn't cover much and is untrustworthy won't matter to them. This leaves the group they left older and sicker. I am not disputing the right to buy into a public option, but if there isn't one then Wyden's amendment is a bad idea.

Posted by: evangeline135 | October 20, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Wyden has every right to be a pain in the ass after the way Baucus dicked him over in the finance committee by not even letting his amendment get a vote.

"Hadn't been rated by the CBO?" B.S.

Posted by: zosima | October 20, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

@evangeline:
"Individual market policies are more profitable because: they can restrict the policies to only healthy people (and they do), they can dump people who get sick (and they do), they can deny more claims (with no group or union to protect you), and they can raise rates more (and do)."

evangeline, you don't have any clue about insurer operations, it's pretty irresponsible to be spouting off all of that nonsense when you are clearly not very well informed.

Please explain how restricting policies to healthy people only makes them more profitable, or why restricting them is even the fault of the insurer when there is no mandate in place. Also please explain how "raising the rates more" makes the policies more profitable, and provide evidence of individual market insurers raising premiums above and beyond the increase in underlying claims.

As for "dumping people" and denying claims, I think you've been watching too much television.

Posted by: ab13 | October 20, 2009 7:51 PM | Report abuse

evangeline135: Are you thinking of Wyden's original proposal instead of the more recent proposal? The more recent proposal is only to open the exchanges to all groups and people.

Why are the exchanges so great? Exactly and precisely because the proposed legislation requires the plans in the exchanges exactly to meet standards for coverage!

In the proposed legislation (all versions) insurers can no longer exclude preexisting conditions, nor can they price differently except by age and smoking, nor can they drop sick people, etc., etc.

See?

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 20, 2009 8:17 PM | Report abuse

Further, in the exchanges, there will be defined benefit plans labeled "bronze," "silver," etc. so that individuals and groups will be able to shop more easily -- you will actually know what you are getting and be able to compare apples to apples: bronze to bronze, silver to silver, etc.

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 20, 2009 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Individual market policies are more profitable because: they can restrict the policies to only healthy people (and they do), they can dump people who get sick (and they do), they can deny more claims (with no group or union to protect you), and they can raise rates more (and do).


evangeline,

oh my, please stop. So wait, if i whip out my union card when my healthcare one doesn't work I get coverage?


Do you know WHY individual markets in most states are NOT where insurers make money? Do you know who makes up a good portion of the individual market? Those laid off on their jobs (after COBRA ended) and in every state but MA, there is no mandate so the only ones who will want to be covered at such high rates are those with health issues. (LOSSES), Also those who are unable to work due to disability (LOSSES). The only individuals who don't translate into direct losses are the self-employed.

oh and not to mention as is mentioned above you're forgetting that pre-ex goes away with this reform.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 20, 2009 8:28 PM | Report abuse

wrong, they don't TAKE people who are going to be LOSSES!!! And they charge a fortune for Cobra. This is how they work...see this case from NY (they find any way they can to dump people--even dropping coverage from whole towns):

http://seminal.firedoglake.com/diary/10480

Ian Pearl says:

"I am not a “dog.” That’s what health insurance executives called me because I have a disease...Our lawsuit uncovered insurance company documents that confirmed my suspicion that I’m a target of discrimination. The documents revealed Guardian had compiled a “hit list” of its costliest members, including patients with muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, and paralysis. Guardian executives referred to us all as “dogs” and “trainwrecks,” and they debated how and when to dump us from the rolls. Laws prohibited the cancellation of the individual members with serious chronic health problems, so Guardian opted to cancel the plan for all members of this specific health plan in New York, an action that violates federal law."

So you see, you can't say they are taking LOSSES when they don't sign people up unless they are healthy, or find ways to dump them when they are sick.

Honestly...how gullible do you think people are?

Posted by: evangeline135 | October 21, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Senator Wyden has put his heart and soul into the health care issue. His "Healthy Americans Act" introduced in 2007 and again this year, was a masterpiece, and it's beyond me why the Senate, in its infinite wisdom, chose to ignore it and instead is intent on ramming through this current bill, public option and all. Of all of the members of Congress in both the House and Senate, I feel confident that he knows, down to the letter, exactly what Obamacare will and will not do, and if he is insistent on getting the Free Choice amendment included, you can take it to the bank that the amendment is a necessary addition proposed by someone who has made it his business to be fully informed, and for whom this is not just another political football with which he hopes to score electoral points.

Posted by: elephant4life | October 22, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

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