Federal Healthcare Update

August 21, 2009

Pardon Our Dust

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During the month of August, Congress has been in recess, but the health care debate has continued to make news across America. 
Members of Congress holding town halls in their home districts have often faced large crowds protesting ‘Obamacare,’ specifically the public option and an alleged provision which protestors believe would allow the government to cut off medical treatment for older Americans on the basis of a cost analysis.  The so-called ‘death panel’ provision does not appear in any current or proposed version of the bill, but a significant portion of the public believes it is a part of the Democratic proposal.  The provision that sparked these rumors, which would have included funding for an ‘end of life’ counseling session every five years, is now being withdrawn from the bill. President Obama held his own town halls in New Hampshire, Colorado, and Montana during the recess, where he promoted health care reform, saying the status quo was an untenable option.  Supporters of the bill began an effort to mobilize grassroots to match those opposing the bill at various town hall meetings around the country.
The public option was also a topic of controversy this weekend, after Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said on CNN’s “State of the Union” of the public option, “I think what’s important is choice and competition, and I’m convinced that at the end of the day the plan will have both of those- but that is not the essential element.” This statement was widely interpreted in the press as a signal that the administration might abandon the public option, prompting exclamations of dismay from Democrats in Congress, especially the more liberal members in the House, as well as a flurry of activity from advocacy groups. Administration officials have firmly pushed back on this interpretation, saying that President Obama still prefers to see a public option included in a final bill.
This week, some Democrats have begun to consider moving on health care reform without any Republican support. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel charged Tuesday that the ongoing heated opposition from Republicans was a signal that the Republican leadership had made a calculated decision to defeat President Obama on this politically important issue rather than pass a compromise bill. If Senate Democrats withdraw from bipartisan negotiations, we could begin to see health care legislation moving more quickly, particularly as they begin to consider using the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill by a simple majority. This would deprive Republicans of the ability to filibuster, creating further controversy about the bill. 
However, bipartisan negotiations are still moving forward, and to prepare for these upcoming negotiations, Senate Finance Committee negotiators met on Thursday via teleconference to continue talking about a bipartisan agreement on health care reform. Although no agreement was reached, Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) said that the conversation was productive and that more meetings are planned before the end of recess. Sen. Baucus has set the deadline for bipartisan negotiations as September 15th, after which time he will consider partisan options to move forward on health care reform.
When Congress returns to Washington, D.C. in September, the Senate Finance Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee will resume work on their bills. The Senate HELP Committee, and the House Ways and Means and Education and Labor Committees will wait for those Committees to complete their work before beginning the likely contentious and lengthy process of merging them.