Snowe talks to business owners on health care

Posted Aug. 16, 2009, at 9:25 p.m.

The forum had been under way for only a few minutes when Sen. Olympia Snowe brought up an issue clearly on the minds of many in the audience at Husson University — and the rest of the country, for that matter.

The nation’s health care system is caught in a “pernicious trend and perpetuating cycle” of rising costs, lesser coverage and limited access, Snowe, R-Maine, told the dozens of small- business owners last Thursday. Snowe said she had made health care reform a top priority six years ago when she became chair of the Senate’s Small Business Committee.

“It was a crisis then and it is even more so today for small-business owners because they aren’t able to access affordable, competitive health insurance plans,” Snowe said. “The fact is this trend is going to continue unless we reverse it.”

Maine’s senior senator stands to play a major role in whether that happens.

Three House committees and one Senate committee have each drafted their own versions of health care reform. But the major focus has shifted to a group of six senators, including Snowe, attempting to cobble together a reform bill that can make significant improvements and still earn both Democratic and Republican votes.

Dubbed the “Gang of 6,” the group began work in June and is continuing during Congress’ August recess in an attempt to hammer out a workable plan by mid-September. Some regard the gang as the best bet — so far, at least — for a bipartisan plan.

President Obama has praised the group’s effort to craft a compromise and invited the Gang of 6 to the White House for a private meeting earlier this month. Snowe also has met separately with the president to discuss health care reform.

Snowe is optimistic, although not overconfident. History is riddled with failed attempts at reform, she said. And health care reform is the most complicated issue Snowe said she has dealt with in her 36 years in public office.

“Without question, I would put it at the top of the list,” Snowe said in an interview. “There have been other challenges, but I would have to say that in terms of complexity and cost it would be at the top. There is probably no more complex issue.”

To achieve a passable bill, the group will have to navigate a minefield of issues. Media reports out of Washington suggest the compromise bill, as it currently stands, would expand Medicaid, offer subsidies to help the uninsured afford coverage and prevent insurers from dropping people for pre-existing conditions. It also would reportedly help pay for those changes by levying additional taxes on some insurance companies selling high-priced plans.

Snowe said she wants to make sure any compromise would allow small businesses to join larger pools to achieve lower rates.

The draft plan apparently does not include a government option, or “public plan,” which has been the focus of so much controversy. And group member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said last week that the plan will not include the optional Medicare coverage for “end-of-life” counseling that gave rise to false claims of so-called “death panels.”

The recent congressional town hall meetings turned shouting matches illustrate just how controversial and emotional health care reform efforts can be. Snowe has not been the target of such outbursts, at least not yet. But her role on the Gang of 6 is certainly attracting attention.

Activists have staged events outside of the offices of both Snowe and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, also a moderate Republican regarded as a potential swing vote in an eventual Senate vote.

Interest groups on both sides are targeting the state with ads meant to sway the two senators through their constituents. All six group members have been the subject of numerous editorials and OpEd pieces across the country, some positive and some negative.

A handful of protesters representing both sides of the issue also showed up at last Thursday’s small-business forum at Husson University.

“There is a lot of anger out there, and these are very tough times,” Snowe said. “The bottom line is this not an easy time to add another overlay to a very substantive and complex issue that affects every American in a deeply personal way.”

There is also a lot of confusion — some focusing on Snowe’s position on one of the key issues. Snowe has said that she would only support a so-called government-offered “public plan” in cases where the private market has failed to offer affordable plans.

But in a video posted on YouTube.com, a representative of Snowe’s office can be heard telling a health care rally in Portland last month that the senator supports a public plan “which is available from day one.” The crowd at the rally, which was sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, immediately erupts into cheers and applause.

The problem is that wasn’t the end of the sentence, according to Snowe’s office. The full statement said Snowe would support a public plan “from day one — in any state where private plans fail to ensure guaranteed affordable coverage.”

That qualifier statement is either inaudible on the video due to the applause or was accidentally left out of the speech. (Snowe’s office insists it is the former). Either way, the Web video generated buzz that Snowe had changed her position on the public plan.

Snowe reiterated last week that her preference for such a “standby” option hasn’t changed, In general, she doesn’t believe the government should be competing with private insurers except when the private market has failed.

But that is just one of the many thorny issues the Gang of 6 must confront. Snowe said she and the other members understand that the American public cannot afford to have Congress fail to enact reforms again.

“The costs are skyrocketing. That is the one trend that hasn’t changed,” Snowe said. “Congress failed to address the issue back in 1993 and 1994, and since that time we have had many millions more become uninsured, and health insurance costs have grown exponentially.”

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