U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree of Maine joined 217 fellow House Democrats on Sunday in voting for a bill that would overhaul the nation’s health care system — perhaps the most significant vote either has cast.
Pingree’s vote was never really in doubt. She has been out front in the health care debate, and although she said the bill didn’t go far enough because it didn’t included a public option, it does represent significant progress.
“Today we stood up to big insurance companies like Anthem,” Pingree said in a statement released after the vote. “And we voted for reform that is going to crack down on their unfair practices like canceling people’s insurance after they get sick.”
After spending most of the weekend on the fence, Michaud joined his party early Sunday evening. The congressman said he waited mostly to make sure he reviewed all the changes from the bill that was passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve.
“I support legislation that will help us move closer to more affordable and stable health care coverage for Maine’s small businesses and families,” the congressman said in a statement. “While the bill is not perfect, it is an important first step toward fixing our broken and unsustainable health care system.”
Earlier Sunday, President Barack Obama struck a deal with members of his party who were concerned about abortion language, a move that likely pushed the bill across the finish line.
The health care legislation, which has become Obama’s signature domestic priority, would authorize spending more than $900 billion over 10 years to expand insurance coverage across the country. It aims to reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 32 million.
“The reform we passed today will improve health care for 225,000 Maine seniors, strengthen Medicare, crack down on insurance industry practices, give small businesses and individuals a tax break to buy insurance and reduce the deficit by $143 billion,” Pingree said.
The legislation also would create a mandate, effective in 2014, that every American be insured or be subject to a fine, but allows exemptions for low-income people.
Small businesses, the self-employed and the uninsured could pick a plan offered through new state-based purchasing pools called exchanges, beginning in 2014.
The exchanges would offer the same purchasing power that employees of big companies benefit from.
Employers would not be required to offer coverage, but they would pay a fee if the government subsidized their workers’ coverage.
“The final bill is a vast improvement to the status quo of skyrocketing premiums that millions of families and small businesses currently face,” Michaud said. “The bill gives patients and doctors more control over health decisions, not insurance companies, and ends practices like denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and dropping patients when they become sick.”
The next step is to send the legislation back to the Senate under reconciliation rules, which require only a simply majority of 51 votes for passage. Democrats hold 57 seats in the Senate, and two independents also caucus with the majority party.
Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are likely to stand with their party and vote against the bill when it reaches the Senate.
In a telephone interview on Sunday before the vote, Sen. Collins said she remains concerned with many elements of the bill, including assessing penalties to small business that don’t offer insurance plans.
“There were a number of reform ideas that could have garnered bipartisan support,” she said. “For something of this magnitude, there should have been more consensus on the details. I hope we have opportunity to do more.”
Sen. Snowe also was frustrated with the process and said Sunday was not Congress’ finest hour.
“As one who has been intimately involved in the multiple facets of health care reform for well over a year and the only Republican to vote for the Finance Committee’s reform bill … it is disappointing to consider what might have been if the process had focused on addressing fundamental problems with the bill to develop a more balanced, effective and credible approach that would be embraced broadly by the American people,” Snowe said in a statement.