Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) is proposing to add a government-sponsored plan, or "public option," to the health care bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in the Senate Finance Committee.
Rockefeller said a public option would protect consumers from profit-hungry insurance companies and save the government $50 billion over 10 years. Republicans, on the other hand, said it would lead America on a path to a single-payer health care system -- one in which the government would be solely responsible for health care costs.
Moderate Democrats in the committee are likely to join Republicans in blocking the amendment. If they do, Rockefeller said, "What we're saying is, 'Go ahead health insurance companies, and make more profits.'"
"And we're saying people and their problems... that they somehow don't count as much," he added. "People come second, and profits come first if we're against this, in my judgment."
Baucus' health care bill, crafted to gain as much bipartisan support as possible, does not include a public option because of opposition to the plan from Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
The Senate Finance Committee is considering two amendments to add a public option, but Rockefeller's is considered more liberal because it would align medical provider payments with Medicare payment rates for two years -- essentially securing lower payment rates than the private industry pays.
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More than half of the cost of Baucus' bill -- nearly half a trillion dollars -- Rockefeller pointed out, would go toward providing subsidies for consumers to buy private insurance. The bill asks little in return from insurers for that money, he said. Insurance companies will continue to raise premiums without a public option to keep them in check, he said.
"The people I represent need this because they're helpless in front of the insurance companies," he said. Insurance companies, he said, are "getting away with banditry, and they revel in it."
Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the leading Republican in the committee, said a public option would be "a slow walk toward government-controlled single payer health care." Other Republicans voiced the same concern.
To highlight the flaws of government-administered health insurance, Republicans also criticized Medicare -- straying from their recent praise for the government program that insures senior citizens.
Medicare is "on a path to a fiscal meltdown" and underpays doctors and health care providers, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said. It is "forcing increasing numbers of providers to simply stop seeing our nation's seniors," he said, and shifts costs to taxpayers.
Grassley called Medicare "part of the social fabric of America," but both he and Hatch said its integral part of American culture prove how hard it would be to reverse any cultivation of a new government plan.
Some moderate Democrats said they were not in favor of Rockefeller's amendment since it would tie payment rates to Medicare for two years.
"With Sen. Rockefeller's amendment, the devil is in the details," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). North Dakota has the second-lowest level of Medicare reimbursement in the country, he said, meaning that "every major hospital in my state goes broke" if public option payment rates are tied to Medicare.
More committee members will comment on the amendment this afternoon before the committee votes on it.