House Democrats on Thursday pushed ahead with legislation that would deliver on President Barack Obama's promise to remake the health care system and cover some 50 million uninsured, despite concerns from their own party's moderate and conservative lawmakers that the $1.5 trillion plan costs too much.
Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf warned lawmakers the legislation that he has seen so far would raise costs, not lower them. Elmendorf was asked by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.S., if the bills Congress is considering would "bend the cost curve." The budget director responded: "The curve is being raised."
Subsidies to help uninsured people would raise federal health care spending, which is already growing at an unsustainable rate, Elmendorf explained at a hearing. The Medicare and Medicaid cuts that lawmakers have offered to pay for the coverage expansion aren't big enough to offset the cost trend, particularly in the long term, he said.
Congress is moving forward nonetheless. On the heels of the Senate health committee's approval Wednesday of a plan to revamp U.S. health care, three House committees with jurisdiction over the issue shifted into action.
The Education and Labor Committee passed an amendment to speed up the bill's guarantee of access to health insurance for people with pre-exisiting medical conditions. The bill as written would have stopped insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, beginning in 2012. The panel agreed Thursday to move up the implementation date for group plans to six months after the bill takes effect.
It was one of about 50 amendments before the committee, which planned to meet throughout the day to complete work on its portion of the bill by day's end.
The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee also was working on its portion of the overall legislation, which seeks to provide coverage to nearly all Americans by subsidizing the poor and penalizing individuals and employers who don't purchase health insurance.
A third House committee, Energy and Commerce, also was considering the measure Thursday, but the road was expected to be rougher there. A group of fiscally conservative House Democrats called the Blue Dogs holds more than a half dozen seats on the committee — enough to block approval — and is opposing the bill over costs and other issues.
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who chairs the Blue Dogs' health care task force, said the group would need to see significant changes to protect small businesses and rural providers and contain costs before it could sign on. "We cannot support the current bill," he said.
The Energy and Commerce Committee's Blue Dogs met Wednesday to consider what amendments they would offer, and the panel scheduled vote sessions daily through next Wednesday in what promised to be an arduous process to reach consensus.
Obama was doing all he could to encourage Congress to act. He scheduled White House meetings Thursday morning with two potential Senate swing votes, Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. On Wednesday, he met with a group of Senate Republicans in the White House in search of a bipartisan compromise and appeared in the Rose Garden for the latest in a daily series of public appeals to Congress to move legislation this summer.
Obama also pushed his message in network television interviews, and his political organization launched a series of 30-second television ads on health care.
And in another ad campaign backing the president's goal, Harry and Louise — the television couple who helped sink a health care overhaul in the 1990s — are returning to the small screen, this time in support of revamping the health system.
Actors Louise Caire Clark and Harry Johnson will appear in a multi-million dollar TV campaign sponsored by Families USA, which champions affordable health care for families, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The ads begin this weekend and will run at least three weeks on national cable and network news shows.
The Senate health panel's $615 billion measure would require individuals to get health insurance and employers to contribute to the cost. The bill calls for the government to provide financial assistance with premiums for individuals and families making up to four times the federal poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four, a broad cross-section of the middle class.
But the 13-10 party-line vote on the bill signaled a rift in Congress — including between Democrats. Some liberal-leaning Senate Democrats are eager to move forward with or without Republican support, while some moderates want to hold out for a bipartisan deal.
The bill would be paired with one from the Senate Finance Committee.
But a core group on Finance — which, unlike the health committee, must come up with a payment mechanism for the bill — continued to labor toward bipartisan agreement. Because it might be difficult to secure support from all Democrats, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., insisted after daylong meetings Wednesday that a bipartisan bill was needed.