President Obama and Democrats in Congress hope to bring down out-of-control Medicare costs by creating an independent commission with the authority to make spending decisions, with the idea that it would not be beholden to special interests.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who introduced the amendment, acknowledged that Medicare spending needs to be reined in, but he said creating an independent commission to make decisions -- rather than letting Congress do it -- only provides a "fig leaf" to cover the problem.
"We have experience to demonstrate this kind of outsourcing of our responsibilities ultimately is an undependable way to bend the cost curve," he said.
He also noted that the commission could potentially be abolished by Congress at a later time, making the presumed long term cost savings unsustainable.
Democrats contended that an independent panel of experts would make better decisions than Congress.
"I do believe too often Congress has too hard of a time saying no to providers," Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said. "I do think it makes some sense to have some kind of a check here to help Congress do the right thing."
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Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) concurred that health care providers and their lobbyists have access to lawmakers that can result in potentially bad decisions.
"We're making ad hoc decisions based upon friendships," he said. "When (providers) come to Congress with their lobbyists -- your former colleagues -- we accommodate them for the most part."
He added, "What is a worse way for making a decision about how you shape the future of health care?"
The debate around the Medicare advisory panel was one of the most important discussions the Senate Finance Committee will have over health care, Rockefeller said. He also noted that a Medicare advisory commission already exists -- though without any true authority -- and was established by a Republican Congress in 1997.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, empowering the Medicare advisory commission would produce only about $2 billion in savings over 10 years -- a relatively small figure. Yet Mr. Obama and Democrats argue there will be savings from the efficiencies implemented at the advice of the commission that are impossible for the CBO to score.
Democrats, along with Republican Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), voted down the amendment.