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Former Senators Unveil Bipartisan Health Proposal, Would Tax Benefits, Mandate Coverage

Three former Senate majority leaders today unveiled a bipartisan health care reform package that would tax health benefits and includes individual and employer mandates. 

The price tag for the plan outlined by Democrat Tom Daschle, and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker is estimated at $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The overhaul — which they say would be budget neutral in 10 years –would be paid for by reforming health delivery and payment systems, slowing the cost growth of Medicare and Medicaid, and fining large employers who don’t offer insurance to their employees. Also, to raise additional revenue, their plan would cap the tax-free status of employer-provided benefits at the value of Congress’ health coverage, taxing benefits worth more.

“Health care reform and universal coverage is indeed something whose time has come,” Baker said, adding that by not being responsible for the politics of health care they could focus on a proposal that is actually bipartisan. “We have no legislative writing authority, and that’s an advantage in a way.”

The group’s plan isn’t without its other controversies, though.

It would mandate that individuals carry coverage, limit out-of-pocket insurance premiums to 15 percent of income for a minimum benefits package and offer “enhanced protections” for Americans living under 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level to be able to afford insurance.

The plan also would call on states to create public insurance plans to compete with private insurers in a marketplace known as an “exchange.”

The senators said they didn’t agree on all parts of their own proposal, with Baker and Dole having a hard time accepting a public plan-like proposal as well as the mandates. Dole called a proposal with a public plan “DOA” – but the three men said they ultimately came to consensus through conversation, presumably hoping to lead by example for current senators working on bipartisan proposals.

“If we can’t compromise, how do we expect, how are we ever going to get a bill passed?” Dole asked. Daschle said no one should expect unanimity from Democrats on any plan and that for any plan to pass, a number of Republicans are going to have to vote for reform as well. Dole said in order for the reform package to have credibility, it will need Republican votes.

Daschle blamed the fracturing of the bipartisan effort at reform on the public plan issue, but said he sees room for compromise. “We’ve come too far and gained too much momentum for our efforts to fail over disagreement on one single issue,” he said. He believes there will be compromise on the public plan issue in “the very near future.” If it doesn’t come from his group’s idea for state marketplaces, it will come from other sources, he said.

The trio has no expectations for their proposal to be endorsed or accepted by the White House, Dole said, but it’s time for everyone to start being open, he said. “If we’re getting serious about helping some poor child who’s sick and needs attention, then somebody’s going to have to give,” Dole said. “And probably it’s better if every one puts money in the pot.”

The leading Senate Finance Committee members Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, both issued statements commending the work of the three former senators.

Baucus said the plan would hold insurance companies’ “feet to the fire.” The exchanges would “make it easier and less expensive for every American to purchase health insurance, and protects the idea of shared responsibility by employers, individuals and government – both of which are critical to comprehensive health reform. And perhaps most importantly, the plan shows us a bipartisan consensus is within reach as we move toward our end goal of ensuring affordable, accessible care for every American,” Baucus said.

Grassley said the trio’s blueprint should encourage compromise and show them that bipartisanship is possible. “While I don’t agree with every element of the proposal, I appreciate its contribution to the debate that’s under way on how to improve the health care system by offering coverage to everyone, fixing the delivery system, getting control of spiraling costs, and making sure reforms are offset and don’t add to the federal budget deficit,” Grassley said.

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