Delegation positioned for health reform

Posted March 19, 2010, at 6:24 p.m.

With a historic vote on reforming the nation’s health care system looming on the horizon, Rep. Michael Michaud isn’t tipping his hand. In a prepared statement on Friday, Michaud said he is still reviewing the contents of the reconciliation package unveiled Thursday by fellow Democrats in the U.S. House.

“This is one of the most significant issues that Congress will consider, and I want to give it the serious consideration that it deserves,” he said.

As of Friday afternoon, Michaud was the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation still on the fence about the legislation. Meanwhile, Maine-based interest groups continued to lobby in eleventh-hour support for and opposition to the bill.

The reconciliation package includes a Democratic bill passed earlier in the U.S. Senate along strictly partisan lines. It also contains a number of House-written changes to that bill, such as more generous subsidies to help low- and middle-income Americans purchase insurance coverage, a scaled-back tax on high-cost insurance plans, and an increase in payments for physician services provided to Medicare patients.

If passed in the House, whose members are expected to vote on Sunday, the reconciliation package would be considered in the Senate under a process that requires just 51 votes for passage.

Aside from the “intense passions on both sides” that have informed the contents of the legislation, Michaud said he has been frustrated by the heavily politicized process of creating the reform bill and pushing it to a final vote.

Michaud said he would cast his vote based on the substance of the bill and decried the strategy that allows House members, many of whom reportedly are concerned for their political careers, to vote for passage of the reconciliation package without specifically endorsing the reforms it contains.

“I believe an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill is more honest and transparent,” he said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District announced her support for the legislation earlier this week and on Friday, after reviewing the final language of the reconciliation bill, reiterated her position.

“This reform will improve health care for seniors, strengthen Medicare, crack down on the insurance companies and make coverage more affordable, Pingree said. “It doesn’t do everything I would like, but it makes many of the reforms Maine people have been asking for for years.”

Maine’s two Republican U.S. senators have expressed disappointment with both the contents of the bill and the process of bringing it to passage. They both voted against the Senate bill.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, who for many months served as the sole Republican in either chamber to support the evolving legislation, withdrew that support after a bill she helped craft in the Senate Finance Committee underwent significant changes under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. On Friday, Snowe said the rampant partisanship has “tragically plagued” the process of health care reform.

“Clearly, jamming a bill through Congress in a partisan process like reconciliation that is opposed by a majority of the country will only further erode the public confidence in our government and make it harder to get anything constructive done this year,” she said.

Sen. Susan Collins, who has opposed the Democrat-driven reform effort from the start, on Friday decried “the bitter rhetoric and partisan gridlock” that has characterized the debate.

Collins said many of the reform measures included in the bill had support in both parties, including insurance market reforms, providing tax credits for the self-employed, and ensuring coverage for children.

“The American people are upset with Congress and rightfully so,” she said. “We lost an opportunity to work together to write a bipartisan bill that would expand access, rein in the cost of health care, and improve quality.”

Meanwhile on Friday, interest groups kept up a drumbeat of political pressure. At the Best Western White House Inn in Bangor, local business leaders gathered in opposition to the reform package, claiming that new coverage mandates would cripple small businesses.

The liberal group Organizing for America-Maine announced a phone-bank campaign today for Bangor area residents to urge their elected representatives to support the legislation. And the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center invited Mainers to its “Keep Your Hands Off My Health Care” rally today on the Portland waterfront.

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