Democrats in the House pounced on a congressional budget analysis to bolster their plan for a government-run health insurance option Monday, as party leaders said they were closer to agreement on healthcare reform.
The report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the public option proposed by Democrats would not drive private insurers out of business and most people would still choose to get their medical coverage through employers.
The public option has come under heavy fire from Republicans who say it will devastate the private insurance industry.
“We’re moving closer to a point where we can hold insurance companies accountable,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told reporters, repeating her frequent prediction that once a bill hits the floor for a vote “it will win.”
President Barack Obama’s drive for healthcare reform has stalled in the Senate and House, which are controlled by his fellow Democrats, amid criticism from all sides about the cost, scope and funding of the more than $1 trillion measure.
A deadline to approve initial versions of the bill before a monthlong congressional recess in August is dead in the Senate and endangered in the House, where Democrats have argued among themselves over reining in costs.
Republicans in both chambers have slammed the measures as an expensive first step toward a government takeover of healthcare.
Pelosi declined to predict whether the full House would be able to take a vote on the legislation before it leaves for a monthlong August recess, saying “we’re good to do it now or to do it whenever.”
About 175 House Democrats attended an information session on Monday night where staff members explained the bill to them section-by-section. “It seems like we are making progress,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel.
A bipartisan group of senators on the Finance Committee also resumed their deliberations on Monday night, searching for an agreement that would move the reform plan forward in that chamber.
“We’ll get there,” Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, told reporters. “It is not easy, but we’ll get there.”
‘MANY MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB’
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe said the committee’s plan would not require employers to obtain insurance for workers, but if the workers get government subsidies to buy insurance, employers would cover the subsidy.
“We have many mountains to climb,” Snowe said.
The legislation is designed to control costs, improve care and expand health insurance coverage to most of the 46 million uninsured Americans. Both the House and Senate are expected to include some form of public insurance plan that would provide competition for private insurers.
The CBO report estimated only about 10 million to 11 million people would sign up for the public option by 2019, far fewer than the 103 million cited in another analysis by the Lewin Group. The Lewin Group is part of Ingenix, a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group.
The CBO report also estimated the Democratic proposal would boost enrollment in employer-based plans by about 12 million people because of the mandate for individuals to be insured.
Republicans often cite Lewin Group analysis to make their point that millions of people would lose their current health coverage if the proposed overhaul became law. But the CBO disputed the group’s conclusions.
“We anticipate that our estimate of the number of enrollees in the public plan would be substantially smaller than the Lewin Group’s, even if we assumed that all employers would have that option,” CBO said.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders said their bill would move the healthcare system in a new direction after years of “immoral” profits by insurance companies — an accusation the insurance industry sharply rejected.
“For every dollar our country spends on health care, less than one penny goes towards health plans’ profits. In order to make health care more affordable for families and small businesses, we need to focus on the other 99 cents,” said Richard Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents the industry.
The No. 3 health insurer, Aetna Inc., slashed its full-year earnings forecast Monday because of higher-than-projected medical costs, sending its shares down more than 5 percent. The health insurer also posted a 28 percent drop in second-quarter net income.
The latest CBO analysis also said the reform proposal would increase budget deficits even though a proposed new tax on millionaires would help cover costs over the next decade.
“When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging,” Representative David Camp, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. “If they can’t stop digging, for the good of the nation they should at least get a smaller shovel.”
(Additional reporting by Jackie Frank; Editing by Paul Simao; Washington newsroom +1 202-898-8300)
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