Senator Baucus' Update on Health Care Reform

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Senator Max Baucus says he hopes to have a bi-partisan health care reform bill ready by June or July. Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance committee, briefed reporters this morning at an event arranged by the Kaiser Family Foundation. He described strong momentum…saying “the stars are aligned,” “its time to move from first steps to giant steps” and “the conversation is going great guns.” Baucus says if Congress fails the problem will cripple many families by 2016. Here’s a summary of key remarks.

Baucus says reforming the health care delivery system will drive the bill. Here he includes shifting payment to reward the quality of services delivered, not the volume. The Senator says he might propose bundling payments…or including all the costs of a specific surgery, for example in one payment. He also mentioned boosting the primary care system (although he doesn’t know how he would pay for this) and studying the effectiveness of one treatment as compared to another here. Baucus does not recommend tying the data to costs just yet…he says that’s too much for the first phase.

The Senator was asked how he’ll bring Republicans on board when the talk so far seems in opposition to sweeping health care reform.

But Baucus says he hears a deep desire among Republicans to find a health care solution. He mentioned public and private comments about working on this issue from Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on Senate Finance. Baucus feels strongly about pushing for a bi-partisan bill that would pass with a 70-vote majority in the House. He didn’t have much to say about how the House is lining up on health care reform.

Baucus says reforming health care is the most challenging problem he’s ever tried to address during his career in the senate. A big obstacle is educating Congress and the public about how things fit together and then working together to offset problems. He says he is also worried about how the country will pay for major health care changes and how much reorganizing his colleagues are ready to embrace.

On single payer…Baucus says America is not ready for single payer. He says we’re not Europe or Canada. The Senator says Americans embrace creativity and innovation and need a uniquely American solution that includes choice and flexibility as he has outlined in his white paper and as is underway in Massachusetts.

Baucus says it’s too early to comment on some issues:
1) Pre-tax treatment for health insurance premiums – Baucus says he would not eliminate the benefit but that it should be trimmed because it is not uniform.
2) What the financial tipping point might be for legislators. President Obama proposes a reserve fund of $634 billion dollars. This isn’t enough for the plans Baucus and others are discussing, but Baucus doesn’t know how much spending his colleagues will tolerate. He is holding meetings this week so that he has a better read on interest and resistance. The Congressional Budget Office is running cost analysis on different proposals that might be included in a broad bill.

Baucus says he’s meeting with all the stakeholders and feels that everyone is ready for some kind of reform.

Martha Bebinger

This program aired on March 3, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.