Health Reform Progress

Posted Oct. 14, 2009, at 5:48 p.m.

Acknowledging that the bill was not perfect, Sen. Olympia Snowe sided with her Democratic colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee and voted for a health care overhaul that she helped shape. It was an important endorsement of necessary reform, albeit one that needs to be improved before it can be approved by the full Senate.

Sen. Snowe, who has long been courted by the White House and Democratic leaders after other Republicans quit the negotiations, said she backed the bill because the status quo was unacceptable. This is an important step forward, but it remains unclear how insurance rates will drop and care will improve when there is little in the Finance Committee bill to ensure necessary competition. This is especially true when the insurance industry released a report, on the eve of the committee vote, warning that Americans will pay more for insurance if the legislation passes. This is further evidence that if left to operate much as they do today, health insurance companies will continue to keep raising premiums, and it won’t end with this reform.

This should embolden lawmakers to add a public option, with Sen. Snowe’s trigger if necessary, to the legislation when the bill comes to the floor.

“Is this bill all that I would want?” Sen. Snowe asked before casting her vote. “Far from it. Is it all that it can be? No. But when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think that the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time.”

She was quick to point out that her committee vote did not forecast how she would vote on the bill in the future.

Since Democrats outnumber Republicans on the Finance Committee, the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was not in doubt, but Sen. Snowe’s endorsement gave it a patina of bipartisanship. More important, it could keep on board moderate Democrats, who would have balked that the legislation was watered down in a vain attempt to get Republican support if Sen. Snowe had not voted for it. The vote was 14-9 in favor. The bill is scheduled to move to the Senate floor later this month.

Sen. Snowe was more revealing about her thinking in comments made after the vote when she appeared on television talk shows. She told ABC’s “Good Morning America” she could not imagine the anxiety families face when living with serious illness and no health insurance; she noted that 62 percent of bankruptcies are the result of medical debt.

While reiterating her concern that a government-run plan would have an unfair competitive advantage over private insurance companies, she left the door open for a public option. As she has said for months, if the insurance industry doesn’t provide affordable coverage, as Congress intends, a public option could kick in. This so-called trigger could offer a middle way to ensure increased competition, but only if the trigger is strong enough.

Sen. Snowe has again clearly defined the problem. Now she and her colleagues on both sides of the aisle must not lose sight of what they must accomplish as they continue to work on legislation to improve insurance coverage and to reduce health care costs.

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