Republicans Seek to Add Malpractice, Kill Individual Mandate in Health Bill

Republicans will seek amendments to parts of the Democrat’s healthcare reform they oppose, rather than push for an alternative plan to overhaul the $2.5 trillion system, a key senator said Monday.

Conservatives are seeking changes that would limit medical malpractice liability and do away with any requirement for consumers to buy a health insurance policy, said Sen. Charles Grassley, speaking at the Reuters Washington Summit.

He would also like to enable consumers to purchase insurance policies across state lines. Insurance is currently regulated at the state level, with consumers unable to purchase from firms that do not sell plans in their state.

“I just hope that we’re able to keep this bill from getting any worse,” said Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Congressional Democrats are unlikely to support those proposed changes, and Grassley conceded the bill could pass without any concessions to Republicans as long as the chamber’s 60 Democrats stick together.

To win Republican backing, the measure also would have to exclude any government-run health insurance option, Grassley added. If such concerns are addressed, Democrats “might get a lot of Republican support,” he told Reuters.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy is to produce a healthcare reform package that provides more people with insurance coverage and cuts costs.

After months of clashes between Democrats, Republicans and the insurance industry, Obama received a boost last week when the Senate finance panel approved its version of a reform measure with the support of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.

Negotiations have moved behind closed doors as Senate leaders work to consolidate the Finance Committee’s bill with another proposal from the Senate’s health committee.

The Finance Committee bill did not call for a government insurance alternative, while the bill from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee did.

It is unclear when a final measure will emerge on the Senate floor for a full vote, but Obama has called for a bill this year.

Specifically, Grassley said he would work to eliminate any provision that would require people to buy their own health insurance plan. Other Republicans will tackle immigration and abortion issues, he said.

Major health insurers — which include UnitedHealth Group Inc., WellPoint Inc., Humana, Cigna Corp. and Aetna Inc. — have become the Democrats’ main target in the reform debate.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to end the industry practice of denying coverage because of preexisting health problems. Companies have agreed to do that as long as more people are required to buy policies, ideally allowing less risky and less expensive patients into the insurance pool.

“This is the first time in the 225-year history of our country that the federal government’s ever said you had to buy something and if you don’t buy it you’ll pay additional taxes, $1,500 per family,” Grassley said.

“We don’t think that the federal government ought to be telling people they have to buy a product (that) maybe they don’t want … for a lot of reasons,” he said, adding that such a requirement would face a legal fight on constitutional grounds.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, in a separate telephone call with reporters, said the mandate could survive a court challenge and “is clearly within the constitution.”

For reform to work, it is important to bring everyone into the system. “It is a shared responsibility,” he said.

Additionally, Baucus said he expected an effort to amend the bill on medical malpractice and would assess such a proposal when it is offered.

(Additional reporting by Donna Smith and Lisa Richwine, Editing by Anthony Boadle and Andrew Hay)